I have never been so acutely aware of my own age. I have never felt so young or so old.
In India last summer I spent mornings caring for old people in a nursing home and afternoons teaching math and reading to little girls.
Now I spend my days providing therapy to kids in elementary/middle schools and evenings assessing old people in hospitals. (I took a second job in which I complete mental health assessments for elderly patients before they are admitted to nursing homes).
I never sought out kids or old people, by the way. They found me. I originally wanted to spend my volunteer abroad experience doing something related to animal rescue, but one thing led to another through a series of events that is still hazy to me. As for my jobs–I hoped to work with adults and university students. But I took what I could find in a tough economy.
I believe there is a reason I’m meant to work with these populations right now, because I don’t believe in coincidences. I don’t clearly understand yet what the reasons are, but the first stage in all of this has been a lot of reflection.
I feel like I’ve officially entered what is considered to be the peak of life. People in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s are expected to be the most competent. That’s why they send us to work with kids and old people in the first place. We have the most intact cognitive abilities and physical prowess. We’re old enough to know some things about some stuff but not so old that we forget our names or go around asking strangers if the moon is made of green cheese.
But in many ways, I still feel like such a small child. When I do hospital assessments, I don’t feel old enough to be helping make placement decisions for someone who is exponentially more experienced than I am (even if they are insisting they are a 20-year-old waitress at a Shoney’s in North Dakota).
I usually still just feel like I should be sitting at the kiddie table at their Thanksgiving dinner, dribbling milk and potatoes down my face while they tell grown-up stories and remark each year that they cannot believe how big I’ve grown. What can I possibly have to offer them? (I feel the same way during family therapy sessions when I am expected to offer parenting advice).
But then when I’m working with kids, I feel so old. And I know I’m too young to say I feel old, but let’s face it, a brand new generation somehow managed to emerge during all those years I spent chatting on AIM. I’m officially “out of touch.” Who knew that teachers don’t use chalk boards or white boards anymore? They use smart boards. It’s all digital. A kid had to explain this to me last week. I still don’t get it.
I inevitably reflect on my own childhood a lot, spending so much time with kids. Kids see the world so differently. They are nourished with an endless supply of imagination. They create entire worlds in their heads that are as real to them as anything else. I was so struck by this quality when I started working with them. I recognized it so immediatly. Because it’s so familiar. I used to have it.
People can retain youthful qualities as they grow up, of course, though often they don’t. I’m lucky to still be playful and goofy. But it’s completely different than how it used to be. It used to be enough for me to happily pass hours and hours just fantasizing about living in Fraggle Rock. There are so many qualities of childhood that you just can’t take with you.
I was caught off-guard a few weeks ago when a sixth-grader asked me if I still believe in Santa Clause. I thought anyone his age would know by now. Shouldn’t he know by now? But I’m never going to be somebody who ruins other peoples’ magic.
“Yes,” I told him. “I do.”
“Oh,” he said. “I don’t.”
I thought I must look like an idiot. But then I thought about it later. If he knew the truth, if he really knew it, without a doubt, he would have to know that every adult knew it too. He wouldn’t have asked. He’s still struggling to hold on to some small piece of the magic and the ease of believing that will soon be ripped out of his grasp completely.
Sometimes when I walk beside one of my kids, I feel strangely self-conscious and embarrassed, just for being an adult. Because everyone knows that kids are way cooler than adults. Or at least, adults know that. Kids still think its cool to grow up. They don’t yet know, and probably won’t until years later when they look at their own kids with the same inevitable distance of age, that right now they are the lucky ones.
(Anyone else having an age crisis? Feeling weirdly young or weirdly old? I’d love to know I’m not the only one).