A long time ago I vowed never to be someone who would wince when asked how old she was. When I was younger, I often asked people their age out of pure curiosity, and I found it troubling when I hit a nerve. Maybe because I didn’t like to feel guilty for a question that I had so innocently posed. Maybe because I didn’t like seeing people cringe about a detail that didn’t matter to me.
As I’ve grown older, I have lied about my age — once. I was barely 23 and teaching in Talange, France, for students with a range of ages that could have matched mine. On the first day of class, terrified, I told them in English that I was 54, which turned out to be a great lesson about numbers.
But in general, why be ashamed of what you’ve earned?
On some levels, it’s not that simple, but on other levels, it is.
“Quel âge avez-vous?” How old are you?
The question had sprung up as I plunged into an introduction dialogue with my French 2 students at the University of Pittsburgh. Despite my resolutions, I had to will myself not to hesitate.
“J’ai vingt-neuf ans,” I responded: I’m twenty-nine. I smiled, but the dialogue continued in my mind: I’m, like, a decade older than you. Please don’t reject me.
An advanced student named Haby (age 19) burst out laughing. “Ah bon?” she said. “You can’t at all tell.”
I grinned nervously and gave her a high-five. “Merci?” I answered.
What it is that makes age a shaming tool in our culture? It’s got to be just more than fine lines and going gray. For the younger generation, is aging a negative process due to the belief that added years force you to no longer be interesting, creative, engaging, and fun? For the aging generation, is age painful when you look in the mirror and think about all the opportunities you have lost? Is my own hopefulness about turning 30 just blind optimism that all I still wish for will be able to happen?
I like to think of age as a muscle. As long as I am still willing to climb trees at sunset by the Susquehanna River when my siblings Andrea and Jordan kidnap me from my apartment in Harrisburg (true story), I will be able to climb trees (until my hips fall off). As long as I am still willing to listen to hear out my students about the joys and concerns that are unique to them, I will still be able to connect to them.
And equally — as long as I am still able to laugh with those both older and younger than me and to find common ground among us; as long as I refuse to take myself too seriously; as long as my life decisions are made sincerely enough that I don’t regret them; as long as I am still willing to take the risks to maybe gain the reward — I think I will be able to remain the best version of myself.
Or at least, I plan to try.