There I was, the conscientious substitute, walking a class of first-graders from the cafeteria back to the classroom, when out of the blue, one of my young charges asked me, “Are you 100 years old?”
“No. I’m not quite that old yet,” I calmly responded.
“So, are you just dressed like in the old days?”
Before I formulated a dignified, witty comeback, the child justified her line of questioning. “It’s the hundredth day of school today, and I thought you were dressed up for it.”
That made me feel only marginally better.
Since I started subbing last school year, I’ve been mortally aware that I’m old enough to be the grandmother — at least — of every student I teach. I’m sure I’m a curiosity to the whippersnappers; and generally, this whole growing old thing hadn’t demanded much more than a passing thought until the end of last year, when, ready or not, I turned 60.
This milestone is unlike all the others. At the time of my 30th birthday, I had a newborn first child to consume me. At 40, life was going full tilt in every direction. Fifty found me still too busy to be either overly vain or contemplative about my age. But 60. Man, this is a category all its own.
The melancholy fact is, I’ve got a whole lot fewer years ahead of me than I have behind me, and I can’t beat back an incursion of morbid reflections no matter how much I practice gratitude and impose perspective, which I do daily. Worst of all, a “what’s the use?” defeatist attitude’s been tainting my traditionally more optimistic outlook, and I don’t like it. Still, I’m not giving in.
Since I’m trying to find ways to defy my age instead of being defined by it, I’ve come up with a modest proposal that would possibly be the older grown-up’s best friend.
What if we stopped celebrating birthdays by the number? I don’t mean an end to marking a completed year of living and the beginning of a new one. Rather, what I’m suggesting is that, after 50 or so, we stop counting.
Who wouldn’t benefit from such a realignment of thinking? On the record, for all legal and medical matters, your accurate date of birth would continue to be known and acknowledged in limited private and professional settings. The hope is, without numeric labels, it might be more difficult to pigeonhole people into stages of life we’re not ready to enter. Eventually, we might even get the better of our own ageist self-perceptions, which would be a big help, since many of us mature adults don’t particularly feel our age — beyond the first thing in the morning creaks and pops, the growing desire for midday naps and the occasional reach for the bedside tube of IcyHot. Fortunately, I can contend with those things, if I could simply manage to stop obsessing about being 60.
Beyond helping myself, I already see how this “no more birthdays by the number” idea may catch on for a variety of demographics. For instance, our 30-year-old daughter already bemoans what she sees as her departing youth. Perhaps if she and other young adults embrace the plan now, by the time they’re 60, they’ll have had a decent head start on ditching their actual age. Besides, by then, who’d be counting anyway?