“When you was my age? When my old man was my age, when my brother was my age… You was never my age, none of ya!” –West Side Story
A non-schooler, who’d grown into a life she loved without any official “studies,” once told me that non-schooling was the best encouragement for a child’s natural curiosity. Years later, a man explained how important it was for boys to be woken up before the sun and sent off to run through cold forests. That’s how he’d learned his own strength, back at his British-style all-boys boarding school. Other parents I’ve listened to seem to think that a good life can’t get started without art classes, or without varsity athletics, or without a christmas tree. I think many of us, myself most firmly included, like to think that however we grew up is how children should grow up. I loved my time at Amherst. If I let my mind do it’s knee-jerk thing, I think that everyone should go to a liberal arts college. And that’s silly.
There are probably deep psychological reasons why I do this, and I don’t know what those are. Perhaps I’m trying to affirm for myself that I was given something worthwhile: that my path was a good one. (Once, when my brother was eight, there were two different desserts and we were each going to eat one. I let him pick, and after he did, he took a bite and then started talking about how much better his was. I said that didn’t make me feel very happy. He replied, “I have to say that, or else I worry I made the wrong choice”). Perhaps it’s something else. Whatever the reason, I think this tendency can be dangerous. It can propose a static approach to a changing world. It can narrow down the options that are open to (or seem open to) those we love. It can hint to those we love that their choices can’t be their own. And of course, those choices can’t be anyone else’s.
Sometimes I look at my students and want to tell them how to move forward. (“I know, don’t I?” says a voice in my head. Another part of me wonders: perhaps the best advice usually asks another to feel their own heart instead of listen to mine: if I saw clearly, instead of “this is wrong,” I might say “consider this deeply–does it really feel right to you?”). I think there is a place for sharing my perspective. After all, people are people. Hearts are hearts, and aches ache. But I also want to write here and remember that I was never their age. Their childhoods, woven through with snapchat and the political backdrop of the day, are importantly different from my own. Even my peers’ childhoods were different: my friend is an only child, and my cousin is the oldest of three. We can still share a lot. We can support each other, look toward each other, and try to see clearly. But I don’t stand where they stand, and I don’t think I can know.
I can watch as you climb this new mountain, and I can try to bring a bandage when you fall. I can share how I’ve struggled and learned, and I can shine my respect–my open-hearted, wide-eyed, playful, exuberant respect–toward the life that you’re living.I was never your age. You wonder. You learn. You choose.