Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Who peed in the fountain of youth?

I turned 26 a week ago. For some things, like opinion polls, I am now in a new age bracket. No longer am I "18 to 25"; I am now solidly "26 to 34." I'm smack-dab in my mid-20s. And I had hoped that people might stop mistaking me for a teenager. But no.

My job takes me to a high school one day a week. Through some mysterious process, certain students at this school are able to become "student TAs," which means that for one period a day, they are assigned to a teacher or an office and get to do really fun things like photocopying handouts and stapling packets. (I haven't seen anyone clapping erasers, but they probably do that too.) To make their photocopies, they have to go to the copy room. But they can't start any of the jobs themselves without permission from the woman who guards the machines. There are big signs on the wall that say things like


So I go in there once a week to make copies of all the random forms I have to fill out every time I have a session with a student. I have been at this school for two months. And the Xerox Guard has yet to remember that I am not a student.

Every Monday, I end up making copies while she's stepped out of the room. She comes back in, and the following exchange transpires:

Xerox Guard: Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah! You can't do that!
Me: [knowing full well where this is going] I can't do what?
Xerox Guard: You can't make copies without me! You are supposed to WAIT!
Me: Um, I'm staff.
Xerox Guard: You are not staff. You are too young.
Me: No, really, I am staff. I'm a guidance counselor.
Xerox Guard: Oh, that's right, you are the Young One! Okay, have a nice day.

Okay, dude. I am tired of being the Young One. I have always been the Young One. I skipped kindergarten and so was a year younger than pretty much everyone in grade school, except the kids with September birthdays who just slid in before the district cutoff. I had, like, thirteen thousand strikes against me in the Grade School Coolness Book, because not only was I young, but I was short, had glasses and bangs and two long braids, did Girl Scouts and orchestra and math club, and most damningly, was that perennial oxymoron, a smart girl. Back then, it didn't really matter whether I looked young. Actually, I didn't care what people thought of my appearance; as far as I was concerned, pulling up one's knee socks in the summer was dead sexy.

But I started to care one day during my senior year of high school, when I was chaperoning an elementary school reading tournament or some such thing. The architects who designed my high school must have been high all the time, for they thought it was a good idea to have a three-story building with two wings (East and West), where you could only cross over between East and West on the first and second floors. To go from 3 East to 3 West, or vice versa, you had to go down to the second floor cross-over and then back up to the third floor. To make matters worse, the odd-numbered rooms were in East and the even-numbered rooms were in West. Every September, unsuspecting sophomores would ask upperclassmen where the third-floor crossover was, and much wandering around in circles would ensue. It just wasn't the same when they renumbered the rooms...

Anyway, there I was, charged with directing kids and parents around this stupidly arranged school of mine, and one mother asked me whether I would be competing in the sixth-grade finals after the cookie break.

"Um, I'm a senior," I said. "I'm a tournament chaperone."

"Oh," said the mom, "you look so young! You will be so thankful when you're older."

That was 10 years ago. I found my first grey hair just before my 25th birthday. I think I've had maybe two more since then. Maybe if I had more grey hairs, I'd get taken seriously. I'm not sure how to give myself grey hairs, though, because I've been under terrible stresses lately that succeed only in making my butt way too small for my pants. (And I don't have a large butt to begin with, or even a medium-sized one. I think I must be one of a handful of women in the world who want a bigger butt. In its natural state, my sad, bony little butt does not get along at all with folding chairs.) One year at camp, my friends and I tried out to be the talent show emcees. Our skit involved Benjamin Franklin and clothes dryers. I forget how it all fit together, but anyway, Sherri needed her black hair to be grey, and Liz suggested that she accomplish this with deodorant. Sherri's hair turned grey, but it wouldn't turn back, even with a long, long shower. From the bathrooms we could hear her yelling "LIFE SUCKS AND IT'S ALL LIZ'S FAULT!"

Yes, this was gifted camp. Our unofficial motto was "Smart people have no common sense."

You know, life really sucks when your airplane seatmate asks you why you are flying to Cleveland, and you try to figure out how to tell him that you are going back to defend your doctoral dissertation. That you have been in graduate school for more than four years now, and that no, you are actually not a real-life, female version of Doogie Howser. That yes, you did start your program when you were 21, but you really have been in graduate school for more than four years and you are going to be 26 shortly after Christmas and that is the G-d's-honest-truth. Or when a girl who's just finished her freshman year at a college near your alma mater asks you if you're in town for the summer enrichment program at the university, and you watch her turn a frightening shade of pink when you tell her that you got your bachelor's degree while she was still in junior high. Or when you've just moved to California and are trying to get your new driver's license...

DMV Dude: Where did you get your first license?
You: Pennsylvania.
DMV Dude: But your form says you are currently licensed in Ohio.
You: Yes, I have been licensed in Ohio since 2002.
DMV Dude: Then how were you licensed in Pennsylvania?
You: Because I lived there before I moved to Ohio?
DMV Dude: No, but I mean how were you licensed in Pennsylvania?
You: Because I got my first license when I was 17, and I moved to Ohio when I was 22?
DMV Dude: But you were licensed in Ohio for the first time in 2002.
You: Yes, and I was 22 then. This is my third driver's license since I was 17.
DMV Dude: But...
You: I was born in 1980. Do you want to see my passport?
DMV Dude: Um, no, that's all right.

Perhaps that sixth-grader's mother was right, as is everyone else who's said the same thing since then: I will be thankful when I'm older. Mathematically, this is beautiful: When I was 16, people thought I was 11. I've truly aged 10 years since then, but I only look like I've aged 5 years. So when I'm 36, people should think I'm 21. When I'm 46, I should look 26. But damn, if some 25-year-old hostess cards me when I'm 40, I reserve the right to make a giant scene.

This high school I work at? I do have to give them some credit. I was sure I'd get carded when I went to buy a soda in the teachers' lounge, and I was met with not even one sidelong glace. I started to think I'd gotten away with something, but then I reminded myself: I'm staff.

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