I was never one of the cool kids in high school. I was a bit too serious for the really fun crowd, but people liked me and I liked them. It was not until I hit my mid twenties that I achieved a semblance of swag. By then I was way more confident and willing to let myself relax enough to enjoy life and all of the wondrous things it had to offer. When I became a teacher I did my best to be one of the cool teachers insofar as teaching mathematics allowed me to do. I learned that the secret to being with it in education involved a mix of subject knowledge along with a great deal of understanding of my students and their particular needs. Over the years my contact with young people kept me abreast of new trends and I was able to pass as someone who was more cool than not, even though I slowly began to see signs that I was losing my hipness when my children began moving toward middle age. Not only did they make fun of my quirky ways and mom jeans, but my teenage grandchildren were beginning to poke fun at them. I got the message that my time of being cool had somehow passed without my realizing it.
We are warned not to go gently into the good night, and J. Alfred Prufrock reminds us of hour hair thinning hair and waning relevance. Even though the calendar tells me that I am no longer a spring chicken, something in my soul feels so very young, When I gaze into the mirror I often have a double take because I just don’t know who the person staring back at me might be. The wrinkles and gray hairs surely must belong to someone else. I wonder when my knees began to ache and why I can’t work all day in my yard like I used to do. I try to remember exactly when it was that I was no longer able to escape the pains that rack body when I over exert myself. My brain has yet to accept my reality, and it is only when some stranger politely treats me as though I am old and frail that I realize that the outside world doesn’t see me the way I see myself. This truth is compounded whenever I discern that my teenage granddaughter is a bit embarrassed when I get really silly, something that used to amuse her but now causes her to turn red in the face. It is as though the world is asking me to act my age, and I am not yet willing to comply.
There seems to be a period of time during which society expects us to begin the process of accepting that we are no longer the rockstars that we once were. We are expected to slowly and gracefully transition into the life of a senior citizen, understanding that it is anathema to dress or speak or act as though we have not aged. We have a role to play, and we must do so willingly. It is only after we have proven that we know how to be members of the elderly population that we have permission to be as daring as we were in our youth. People in their nineties are thought to be adorable if they revert into a kind of second childhood. We love Betty White because she has taken the cute and quirky factor of being old to a level of high coolness, but she is only afforded respect because she paid her dues along the way and admits proudly to her age. She doesn’t try to hide the years. She rejoices in them.
I’m admittedly still raging against the idea that my youthfulness is done. My brain is thankfully still working quite well aside from the moments when I forget what I was about to do or say. I can outwork people half my age, and I know as much about current music as anyone. Still I find myself feeling less and less in the mainstream and more and more of an antique. I have seven decades of memories which seem fresh and new until I find old photographs of myself that look like something from a museum of history. Even worse is seeing my contemporaries with graying and thinning hair wearing the same kind of comfort shoes that I need to keep from hurting myself.
Don’t get me wrong. I totally enjoy having grandchildren and being retired. I feel for the younger folk who have to go to work each day while I am as free as a bird to do whatever I wish. There are so many perks that go with being my age and I am enjoying every single one of them to the max. I just have to keep reminding myself that to every time there is a season, and mine is far different than it once was. Being cool at my age means handing over the baton to the younger generation and encouraging them to be their best selves. It is a process of enjoying every moment and loving all of the lines and scars that are the trophies of having really lived. Being hip is understanding that the good old days are still coming and while looking backward may be fun, progress is even better. I know that I will never again look like I did when I was twenty five, but I can be happy that I’m alive and active and able to still give of myself to the people around me. That in itself is very cool.
The coolest person that I have ever known was my Grandfather William. He lived to be one hundred eight years old and never once complained that the world was not as great as it used to be. He was excited about each and every sign of change, and celebrated the good that it brought to humanity. He knew when it was time to quit driving his car for safety sake. He adjusted to the challenges that came his way. He always seemed to know and appreciate how popular culture was benefiting us, and he thought that young people were brighter and more wonderful than ever. He understood that being cool meant being optimistic and resilient and that everything old becomes new again. I guess that given his example I realize that while I may not be trending like Beyonce, I’ve still managed to stay cool. Maybe I’m not getting old. Maybe I’m getting better.