Dorothy was the reason I dreaded going to work. I taught water aerobics and thought I was hot stuff. I had great music – Madonna, the soundtrack to Footloose, Donna Summer. I created high-energy routines where we ran up and down the pool frantically waving our Styrofoam buoys. The younger women in my evening and Saturday classes thought I was the best, but the seniors in the weekday morning sessions didn’t respond. They talked during class, left early, and some simply got out of the pool when they saw me coming.

I worried about whether they liked me, and whether my workouts were challenging. Dorothy got in my face.

“No one likes your classes,” she’d say. “You’re late, and no one likes your music.”

Nauseous in the bathroom stall before class, I prayed Dorothy wouldn’t show up. I was back in junior high, hiding from the eighth graders who bullied me in the stairwell.

One morning I sat in the whirlpool feeling sorry for myself, and Dorothy joined me. I tried to ignore her as she complained about her knees and how the health club management never responded to the seniors’ complaints.

Watching her clinging to the handrail and wincing up each step out of the whirlpool, it started to occur to me how powerless she must feel. I wondered what it would be like to be in your seventies and have your body begin to fail you. Maybe she had reasons for being angry that had nothing to do with me.

After the next class, I asked Dorothy about her life and learned she had been a manager for a manufacturing company – supervising 75 people. She had once run the union and had a lot of power and respect. I realized I shouldn’t judge her so harshly just because I thought she’d been rude.

I went out and bought some new music – Swing to Big Band and The Songs of World War II. Despite the forty year age difference, my conversations with Dorothy in the whirlpool extended into lunches after class and afternoon movie matinees.

The seniors began singing along to the music and staying in the pool for the entire class, and Dorothy started welcoming newcomers instead of telling them they were standing in her spot. When she heard my boyfriend and I were breaking up, Dorothy was the first with an offer to help pack boxes. When I was on crutches with a sprained ankle, she drove me to my doctor’s appointments. This fall, my parents flew in for a visit. When they suggested a dinner with my friends, Dorothy was one of first people I called.

I look forward to my senior classes now. If I hadn’t stepped outside my own thoughts as an instructor, I would have missed out on the gifts of a most surprising friendship.

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