Thursday, June 14, 2007

Age is funny. I've thought a lot about it lately--mainly because I've been mistaken for ages I am not, which can be fun or groan-worthy, depending on the age.

In theory, it's a terrific compliment when you're mistaken for someone younger--especially for women, and especially nowadays when it seems like youth is everything. You're 30 but someone mistakes you for a college student? Awesome. Out with the grandkids and someone thinks they're your kids? Makes your day. You're a 24-year-old adult and someone mistakes you for a high schooler? Not cool.

Definitely not cool. And it's happened to me. Four times. In the past year. I can just see the eyerolling from those of you older than me, but hear me out.

Case 1: I'm substituting at a local high school and ask the lady behind the desk in the front office where I'm supposed to park my car. She looks at me blankly until I explain that I'm a substitute teacher and should I park in visitors parking or in my teacher's spot? Her face clears. "Oh," she says, "honey, I thought you were a student." (mental head slap)

Case 2: Substituting again at the same high school, this time sitting in class and supervising the women's chorus as they rehearse dance steps for an upcoming concert. A different lady comes in and is obviously looking around for the one in charge. In my most professional grown-up voice (recalling the office incident), I say I'm the substitute and ask if I can help. She looks at me funny and then it comes again: "Oh, I thought you were a student." I smile weakly.

Case 3: I'm pulling to a stop at a redlight and fiddling with my ipod and accidentally tap side mirrors with the beat-up truck in the next lane. We both pull over. The driver is a kind older man and we discover the back of his mirror has a small dent in the metal. I apologize profusely and offer to pay for it. He looks at me with concern and shakes his head. "I don't want to get you in trouble with your parents." Um, what? "Oh no, I'm married," I explain with a little self-conscious laugh. He frowns. "I'm 24 years old," I continue, to keep him from reaching entirely the wrong conclusions. "I thought you were 16 or 17," he says. Ouch. All is well in the end, as he refuses to let me pay, and we part ways amiably.

Case 4: A few weeks ago, I was buying things for dinner at the Fresh Market, and also had a bottle of wine in the cart. The lady at the register looked at me, narrowed her eyes, and said, "Girl, you know I'm going to have to card you." I give a little laugh and hand over my ID. "1983?" she exclaims, which begins a five minute conversation about how I don't look that old, and isn't that funny, ha ha. Yes. Really funny.

I am not saying all of this to prop myself up or pat myself on the back. In another few years, I know I'll be thrilled to be mistaken for someone younger. But not this young. I doubt anyone who isn't already a teenager wants to look like one. Youth can mean fun and freedom, but it also means immaturity and restrictions and bad decision-making and no one taking you seriously.

We've all got our own (sometimes distorted) view of what we think we look like to others, and how we want to be perceived. It's a shock--at least for me--when someone makes a comment that pokes a hole in that self image. But I guess in the end, it's a good thing to learn how others really see you; it helps you improve yourself, or at least lends a little clarity.

So I'm trying to wean myself from my basic wardrobe of sorority t-shirts and jeans (my uniform since freshman year in college), and grow up a little bit. It's easy to get lazy. I know perception isn't everything, but it does matter, if only to keep me growing and changing for the better.

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