It’s never too late to return to school – especially when your formative years have been shattered by displacement, living as a Jew in central Europe during World War II, and never being certain what the next day would bring.
Life was all about avoiding capture or worse for young Irene Steiner after she had to leave Romania and then struggle to survive
as an orphan in Budapest where she used her combination of street smarts and innocence to avoid deportation and death.
When the year ended, new threats emerged from Russian liberators, but Steiner managed to make her way under extreme circumstances to Palestine where civil war and invasion soon threatened Israel’s first year.
Though never harmed physically, that saga of her tumultuous teenaged years is told in her recently published memoir, A Life of the Twentieth Century (Booklocker.com), written under the nom-de-plume Irene Even. (Even is Hebrew for stone, Stein in German and Yiddish.) It is a remarkable story.
The next part of her life, one that will be inspiring to many, is how a deep desire to learn, then to teach, led to her overcoming great obstacles to return to school after she and her family emigrated to Montreal in 1952. It took her 17 years.
In 1969 when she was 40, after an acrimonious divorce, Steiner was consumed by a desire to resume her education – a move that resulted in her becoming a teacher and earning three undergraduate degrees, the last one being a B.A. from Concordia in Philosophy and Classics, which she completed last year at 88.
It was a mighty challenge from the beginning. She had two children who themselves had just started university.
English was a third language after her native Hungarian and her second language, Hebrew. She now had to tackle French.
It was a heroic undertaking, but when Steiner enrolled in night classes at the Grade 9 level at the former Sir George Williams University, she was such an impressive student that the principal called her into his office, and advised Steiner to go to university.
“If she hadn’t done that, I probably would not have continued with my education,” Steiner recalled. She completed CEGEP at Concordia in three years with a major in history and minor in French literature, began university courses in 1972, and with a lot of summer courses under her belt, graduated from Concordia with her first B.A., in History and French literature.
“I had no concept of my age, I just wanted to study. I took all kinds of courses, such as Italian, Shakespeare, Philosophy, and Children’s Literature.”
Steiner followed that up with a diploma in Education from McGill University and then returned to Israel where she worked as a teacher for more than 20 years, mainly in the town of Sderot, a regular target for rocket attacks from the nearby Gaza Strip.
It was a tough assignment for any teacher, but Steiner found a way to communicate with her high school students that earned her their respect and that of her colleagues and superiors. She headed the English department and received the coveted Teacher of the Year award.
She says she never had discipline problems. “In order to motivate them you have to make them succeed, and then they are going to do everything. I just love the kids, I really, really loved them.”
Returning to Montreal, Steiner and her family discovered that her romance with formal education was only beginning. She started taking various courses at McGill’s Learning in Retirement program, now called the McGill Community for Lifelong Learning, and one of them was Write the Story of Your Life, which she subsequently did.
It was after these courses that she registered for her second B.A., at Concordia.
“I felt that what I wanted was to write exams. I love writing exams. Why? I have no idea. It doesn’t mean that I’m not nervous when I write exams, but I do very well in exams. I just like the process of learning. I love writing papers.”
She acquired a second degree, in English Literature, completed part-time over five years, in 2011.
“Since forever I am fascinated by literature. I taught English literature as part of my courses for high-school leaving (bagrut in Hebrew).
What stands out for her today from these readings is E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel, Howards End, which made a huge impact on Steiner because it depicted so well profound changes in English society.
“I was struck by how the elite was resisting changes in society that were underway, the rise of social mobility, and the challenge to the establishment. When my professor read the paper, he remarked, ‘Why don’t you write a book?’” Instead, she enrolled in a third B.A. program, in philosophy and classics.
She recalls having written a paper on the Roman consul, Mark Antony, or Marcus Antonius, and his bitter rivalry with Cicero, after Julius Caesar’s death. “I got an A on the paper, I read ancient and modern sources, and I like that.”
In philosophy, Hegel, Hume, Kant, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir were among those on her reading list. She also took courses
on the philosophy of human rights and of the environment.
“In the course on human rights, we had a reading list, but in class we also talked a lot about Donald Trump. On the environment, we examined the question, Are Humans to Blame for Climate Change? The philosophers have questions, because it’s not straightforward. Climate change has been going on forever.
“On one philosophy exam, the question was, ‘If you had a child in school, which philosopher would you want them to study and why?’
“I chose Aristotle because he is the most reasonable philosopher. With Immanuel Kant you feel like you are marching to a military band; with David Hume you feel like you are on a sentimental journey; Aristotle is reason that takes human nature into account.”
It was not always easy, particularly in seminar-style 400-level classe, with students sitting around a table, and most of them, in their 20s, often spontaneously expressing their thoughts. “I had to measure very carefully what I was saying. That was a little hard.”
As for relations with teachers, Steiner proudly shows me a letter, dated June 12, 2017 from Concordia president and vice-chancellor Alan Shepard, congratulating her on her “great personal achievement.”
“I heard about your unique story … your passion for learning and perseverance are truly inspiring,” he wrote.
From the beginning of her academic odyssey, Steiner said she told herself, “If I fail one course, I am out.” It never happened.