Saturday, April 3, 2010

Age Outing!

When I returned to college full-time 3 years ago to complete the degree I’d started 20 years before, it didn’t occur to me to mask my age.
I spoke freely about my children, husband, and my experiences. In context not obnoxiously so. Young adults do not appreciate hearing “in my day stories.” Or to be given uninvited advice. Who does?
I opted for a small college and there weren’t many older students in the day program. I soon realized that my age was a distraction. So I didn’t speak as freely. Not because my age bothered me. But my decision to go into the traditional program made me equal, in the learning process, with people who were only a few years older than my oldest child. I wanted to get the most of my new college experience without leveraging my life experience and overshadowing my peers. Nor did I want to become the obnoxious know-it-all old lady.
This strategy was effective. Nobody thought I was a young college student. However, the ambiguity was enough for most people to relax around me and be themselves. This also allowed group projects to work well. I was not the default leader. I was only referred to as a mother figure a handful of times.
Completing an internship was a requirement for graduating in my major. When I arrived for the interview I noticed that everyone was in their early 20’s. I was very aware of being overdressed in the super laid back environment. I really didn’t think I would get the internship as the interviewer was also college age. I didn’t think I would be a good fit. Much to my surprise I did get the internship. Other than the owner, who was still a decade younger than I, I was the oldest person there.
And my age became a closely guarded secret.
This atmosphere, established by the owner, was far more casual and raw. The F-bomb was dropped enthusiastically and often. No topic or joke was really of limits. Unlike the bubble of respectability at the small Christian college I’d just left.
One of the interns who felt as if she was an elder intern befriended me. Deciding we were in the same age group she confided that she had graduated college in 2004 and would be turning 28. That was such a sweet compliment.
I was often asked leading questions in the epic quest to find out my exact age. Like, “How old were you when you got married and what year was it?” It was pretty amusing. My spirited rejoinder was usually along the lines of “Do you think I am stupid?”
Two other members of the group and I made it to senior staff after the internship was over. Sometimes the age thing came up, and I wouldn’t cooperate. They were baffled by the fact that I wouldn’t fess up. Out of the 6 of us 4 were 23, 1 was 31, and then there was me. It wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have, not without back-up.
So with no preamble one cold gray Chicago winter day one of my co-workers “outed” me (thanks Bethany). She gave my full birth year during one of our frequent staff lunches. I, who am usually never at a loss, was stunned to silence. She denied it had anything to do with the W-2 form I recently turned in. And swore I volunteered the information. I did NOT.
Truthfully, I never thought I would be one of those women who would care about their age. After all I am a proud child of the 70’s and 80’s. I am proud of the fact that my mother took me with her to hear Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967, when he came to Cleveland. Sure I was only a few months old and can’t remember, but heard his mellifluous voice. I was a fan of Michael Jackson when he hit the scene with his brothers, the Jackson 5, at age 11. Not one of those mid career fans.
I was in elementary school when the world mourned the death of Elvis and was just as sad for his daughter Lisa Marie who is a year younger than me. I was there when the pre-teen disco debuted “Rappers Delight.” It was the revolutionary song that heralded the dawn of hip-hop, a genre that was predicted to be a fad.
Madonna crashed onto the scene making slutty and trashy cool. As cool as she was we were pretty sure her weak vocals wouldn’t sustain a career longer than a few catchy songs. "Aging shock addict" she was once called.
Fluff chicks ruled. They were girls who wore big hair high and their bangs higher. Frozen in place thanks to cans of hairspray, generously applied and reapplied. I am sure the ozone layer thanks them. Mullets were called shags or just layered hairstyles. Decades before Paris Hilton flashed her goodies. Prince, through Vanity 6, and Madonna had our generation convinced that it was ok to wear underwear as clothing. It was so disappointing that our school dress codes did not agree.
I am not ashamed of my generation or what we experienced together. I just don’t have the desire to explain it to people who don’t understand.