I’m writing about aging this week because I’m turning 25 tomorrow. Yikes!
That’s stupid, you’re thinking. 25 is still young, and you’re absolutely right, but then, aging happens faster than they tell us. And for some reason, I’m realizing now that so much of my identity has been wrapped up in my age.
Just a number, they say. But today, I’m still in my “early twenties,” still basically a kid. Tomorrow, I won’t be. I’ll be so unambiguously not a kid anymore.
Why does that matter? Because we all get stereotyped at a young age. Me? I was the Whiz Kid. Somewhere just outside of “prodigy,” though I did hear that word thrown around a couple of times. I learned to read and play piano (by ear) when I was three. I regularly scored in the 99th percentile of the stupid standardized tests we took every year, starting in kindergarten. In school, I was picked on for being smart and nerdy, and my teachers softened the blow of social isolation by reminding me I was of value. I love my teachers so much.
That reputation followed me throughout my life, and all through college. Professors I’d never met would pull me aside after hearing me speak to tell me how “bright” I am. My college education was funded by a full academic scholarship (thank you, taxpayers!), and I graduated with two majors and a minor, a 3.98 GPA, and the honor of giving my college’s convocation speech.
A big chunk of my identity is centered around being young and smart. The youth part somehow enhances the intelligence part, doesn’t it? Makes it shinier, more glittery.
But now, I’m just smart. I don’t have youth to fall back on when I make mistakes. I can’t pad my accomplishments with precociousness. My peers have caught up to me; I rested on my laurels, in a way, and now I’m not ahead of the pack. My friends update me on their doctoral progress while I sit blissfully on my lonely BA.
It’s scary; it’s freeing.
The thing about stereotypes is that while they sort of give you a sense of stability, something to fall back on when you forget who you are, they also confine you. I used to be a people-pleaser, as though it were required of me. After all, my knowledge and pluck opened doors that my rage and premature world-weariness could close. But I don’t care anymore. I’m a grown-ass woman; I can snarl if I need to. I don’t need to be some cute little ivory-tickling entertainer.
I have a choice.
I use my piano to make music that conveys my rage, even as my technical chops deteriorate with lack of practice. I use my words to speak frankly about issues I care about — issues that aren’t cute or pleasant. Some of those words are profane. Okay, tons of those words are profane.
When I was a kid, I really fucking resented the brainy designation, the “Little Miss Perfect”s that other kids slung at me. I wanted everyone to know that I was normal, even though I wasn’t, was I — but I was, wasn’t I?
I was doing the same things they were — learning to survive, to navigate a world of uncertainty and cruelty as best I could. Breathing and eating and toeing the line. Like them, I wanted to grow up and succeed. I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to be loved.
And I feel like when we get older, so many of the stamps they brand us with as kids fade away, and that’s what’s left. Just our normal, surviving, wanting-to-be-loved selves. Just like I don’t feel this urge to be a world-changing rock star anymore, or even a bestselling novelist — I’m happy just to be comfortable, to help as many people as I can, to have time for myself, my cat, my fiance — as my youth recedes, I don’t need to be extraordinary anymore.
I mean, I am extraordinary, in that nobody is like me, but you are too, and so is everyone else. And in that paradox there is comfort.
I’m no longer the Whiz Kid; I’m just Natty.
I like that.