Re: My first impressions of training Aikido
Sounds like you had fun!
I wouldn't worry too much about how good other people seem to be. 1) we all have peaks and valleys, 2) we all progress at our own rate; it's not a race, 3) sometimes people work on other concepts when they're at certain points in their training and it can make things seem like they're not any good.
As for the higher grades that were looking at sensei, there are many ways to do every technique. It could be possible a variation was being taught and the more experienced members were watching to see if it was different from what they wanted to do. Muscle memory is good, but it can get in the way too. I can't tell you how many classes I've seen where the sensei teaches a variant of something and everyone just goes and practices kihon waza instead! That includes myself!
Oh and the 12 year practicing "newbie"? Did she practice in a different style of Aikido? Because things can vary greatly and it can be difficult to switch, especially if you spent a lot of time training in a different way. Also, some of us go away for periods of time. I had 13 years between aikido training! But the most important thing to remember is #2 from above: it's not a race!