YRACUSE, N Y
IT took everyone at the Syracuse University law school a little while to get used to the idea of an 81-year-old first-year student.
"It's not easy to make a decision to give a seat to someone in their, you know, waning years, when so many young people hope to get in," said William Banks, a professor on the admissions committee.
"Yes, I was kind of surprised we admitted someone that age," said JoAnn Larkin, a student affairs administrator. "I was surprised an 81-year-old would think that this is something an 81-year-old would want to do. I thought, there might be, you know, problems."
"You know, the problems you'd anticipate with any 81-year-old law student," Ms. Larkin said.
High blood pressure?
"Exactly," she replied.
Lack of stamina?
"Exactly," Ms. Larkin said. "My in-laws can't make it for two hours without a nap."
Part of Ms. Larkin's job is getting help for students who need special accommodations. "We have law students who are taking care of an elderly parent and we try to help with their scheduling," she said.
At 81, Jeanette Goldstein was the first law student Ms. Larkin ever had who was herself an elderly parent. At first, Mrs. Goldstein stuck out. "Law books are heavy," said Professor Banks. "You'd see her rolling hers around on a pull cart. She looked like a little old lady lost at La Guardia."
Jason Cleckner, 23, heard rumors. And then, the first day of civil law class, he found himself sitting beside "the little old lady." Mrs. Goldstein smiled and offered him an extra laminated study guide she had for the course. "I said, 'Nice lady,' " recalled Mr. Cleckner.
Now, as an 83-year-old third-year student about to graduate and go off into the real world, Mrs. Goldstein is barely noticed around campus. "I blend in," she said, "I wear jeans and a knit top like everyone else."
"She's just a very serious law student," said a classmate, Christopher Grace, 25. "She's always up on the reading, always participating in class." Truth is, Mrs. Goldstein is a bit of a goody-two-shoes. Sits up front, raises her hand a lot. "Yes, I do," she said. And she's a bit of a grind. Mrs. Goldstein gets to school by 8:30, spends every free minute in the fourth floor reading room, and does not leave until 8:30 at night, seven days a week. "I never allow more than 20 minutes for lunch," she said. "Friday night they put notices in our folders saying it's bar night."
Go for a drink?
"Are you kidding? I don't have time for anything like that."
Now that everyone at school is used to Mrs. Goldstein, it's the outside world that's curious. The local newspaper, The Post-Standard, recently put her on the front page. Local TV stations are calling. When this reporter asked to spend a day, Mrs. Goldstein said, "Do I need to dress up or can I wear my school clothes?"
People want to meet an 83-year-old law student. The youngest of Mrs. Goldstein's eight children, Jeremy, 41, a businessman, had a bris for his baby son. "I said I want to thank my mother for taking time out from her busy law school schedule to come," he recalled. "Afterward, everyone wanted to meet my mother."
They want to know why. In Mrs. Goldstein's case, it seems there was always a lawyer lurking inside, trying to get free. After getting her teaching degree in 1943, she settled down to raise those eight children, but helped her husband, David, with the family optical business. In 1958, they went to Japan, where he negotiated a deal to distribute Olympus Optical microscopes. "I took one look at the contract and ripped it up," Mrs. Goldstein said. "I rewrote it to make sure there was no way out for Olympus. That's the trick - think of every angle."
When her youngest started school in 1970 she was ready for the law. "Everyone has a dream," Mrs. Goldstein said. "My dream was to get out of the house." But her husband felt the commute from their Rochester home to the nearest law school, in Syracuse, was too far. Instead, she took a job as a social worker for the next 20 years.
In 1996 her husband died and she tried living the Florida life, but that was not Mrs. Goldstein's cup of tea. She needed a project, took a course to prepare for the law boards and was accepted at Syracuse.
Her young classmates come equipped with cellphones and laptops. "Why do I need a cellphone," she said. "I don't need any calls. My kids say, 'We want to know where you are.' I say I'm back in my apartment by 9, call then."
Her classmates take notes and type papers on laptops. "They can move paragraphs around - I'm cutting and taping all day," said Mrs. Goldstein, who pays to have her papers typed for her. Her son Jeremy bought her a laptop but she made him take it back. She regrets not having learned to type, but as a young woman, it was a matter of principle. "I never wanted to get stuck as a typist in an office," she said.
Most students have summer internships. Not Mrs. Goldstein. "They're on loans, they need money," she said. "I have a pension and Social Security."
People want to know her longevity secret. Diet? "I take orange juice and very little for breakfast. I bring a hard-boiled egg sandwich for lunch." Dinner's a frozen entrée and by 10:30 she's in bed.
Tough? She fell in November and broke an arm. "It was a Saturday," she said. "I was in school Monday, didn't miss a class."
"That's my mother," said her son Jeremy. "Broke an arm? I got another arm. I got two legs."
Of the 280 who started in 2001, she is one of 231 expected to graduate next month. Her law interests come from her life experience. She likes corporate and securities law (her husband's business was nearly ruined in a fraudulent takeover and she hates "Enron people.")
The day after graduation she will begin a bar review course. She plans to take the New York and New Jersey bar exams.
"That will get me a waiver to practice in Washington," she said. "You can get a government job."
Is she serious? "I might be," she said.
Is she serious? "I don't know," said her son Jeremy.
"She says to me, 'Jeremy, you know what a starting lawyer makes at the S.E.C. - $85,000!' "