“You need to stop laughing and grow up!” I snapped at the 14 year-old boy who was hunched over his desk trying to stifle his reaction to another student’s funny story that was just shared on the way into my class.
It was the last period of the day and I was trying to teach the Spanish Preterite of Regular -ER verbs to 28 tired teenagers. I, of course, viewed it as an important topic and I was determined to keep a lid on the disruptions and just get through the lesson.
On my way home I reflected on the frustrating teaching moment.It had been a long day, as they all are when we get near the end of the school year, and my ankle was throbbing with pain. Almost 3 1/2 months after my surgery, my foot still swells up at the end of the day and resembles a deep pink tubular water balloon poking out of my shoe. Listening to music and feeling the thawing of my strict teacher demeanor, I thought about the fresh-faced adolescent. His wide grin and sparkling eyes were inspiring and his laughter was light and refreshing. Whatever the story was, he just couldn’t keep it out of his head. It must have been a good one that kept pushing his silly button. It suddenly reminded me of an amusing childhood memory.
Seated in the front pew of the quaint Methodist church, my three sisters and I noticed that our mother left a small pink plastic curler at the nape of her neck in her haste to get ready that Sunday morning. Not fully engaged in the sermon, the four of us (all pre-teenagers) of course noticed the oversight and the ripple effect of our collective laughter spread down the wooden bench like a gentle wave washing over a piece of driftwood. Our little bodies started to jiggle with muffled giggles in unison and soon our pew was vibrating. Mom cast a disapproving glare, but we just couldn’t stop!
We tried to explain our laughter on the way home, but our mother was not amused. I am sure she would have preferred more grown-up behavior that morning. Perhaps the view of the situation contained a difference between parent and child of too many years. Likewise, at age 59, the chasm of 45 years in my classroom was well beyond a generation. I think that my student simply accepted the reprimand as words from a grumpy old lady. Fortunately, he picked up right where he left off, exiting laughing at the end of the period.
“Act your age!” are words that I have glibly offered in the past and I have been the recipient of those words too. Thinking about it now, it seems like an unreasonable request. We celebrate a birthday each year, chronologically grow older, and we immediately have to assume that new status. But how do we know how to act when we haven’t been that age before? As a little girl I loved playing dress-up and pretended to be an adult, escaping from my real age. I put on flowing evening gowns, slid my tiny feet to the edges of size 7 high heels in order to walk, and painted my face with left over rogue and Maybelline eye liner that my mother had discarded. Disguised, I felt very grown-up in my 5 year-old body. I even lowered my voice and spoke in a more serious tone in between puffs on my candy cigarette. In junior high I wanted to look like the British model Twiggy and every weekday morning I smoothed on creamy, bright blue Yardley eye shadow and drew long artificial eye lashes on my lower lids to look just like her. I felt very sophisticated and much older than my 13 years. I am not sure what age I wanted to be? Looking back now, I think that the make-up coupled with the style of the 60’s, mini-skirt and platform shoes, probably made me look like a junior hooker in the red light district of Amsterdam.
“A grownup is a child with layers on.” (Woody Harrelson)
This August I will have the privilege to present a workshop at the Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation in San Diego. Michele Neff Hernandez started this wonderful support organization in May 2008. Like me, she was forced to accept the status of widowhood at a very young age. She started this foundation to help others cope with the loss of a loved one and developed an incredible “peer-based community for grieving people, with a special emphasis on those who are widowed.” I found out about her organization online, contacted her, and she graciously accepted my book as a resource. And now this summer, I am honored to meet Michele along with the “campers” at the fourth annual SSLF Conference to share my message of hope. At last year’s event, participants from 28 states and 5 countries came to share and to feel the support and love from one another. I have titled my presentation “Do It Your Way: Find Your Own Whispers” and I hope that I can empower others who are struggling on their own grief journey and give them a message of hope. (Check out the web site to learn more about this fantastic non-profit organization at www.sslf.org)
As a widow at age 40 I did not know how to act and sometimes I felt that I was forced to “grow up” and leave my fun life behind. Fortunately I learned that this moniker was only society’s way of categorizing me and that in my heart I was still young and was allowed to have fun. I anticipate that my audience will contain a variety of ages and that many will be young. I will remind them that they don’t have to act differently to fit the role of widow or widower. Losing a loved one can come at any age and it should not propel us down the timeline. Sure, we change as a result of our experience, but that realignment does not have to change who we really are. I will not tell any one to “grow up”. If there are tears, there will be hugs. If there is laughter, I will try and make it louder. Nope, I won’t make the mistake again of telling anyone to “grow up”. I will just advise my audience to grow stronger… but before that I will apologize to my student for my hasty remark. I am certainly not ready to grow-up and I do not want to force anyone to do so either!
“Too many people grow up. That’s the real trouble with the world, too many people grow up. They forget. They don’t remember what it’s like to be 12 years old. They patronize, they treat children as inferiors. Well, I won’t do that.” (Walt Disney)
Enjoy where you are in your life. Grow stronger. And if you know how to…act your age, but don’t grow-up too fast!