May 23, 2008

all grown up


This is the sound of relaxation. I have just finished 4 years of MIT. Everything is squared away: no more projects, papers, exams, problem sets, forms, meetings - nothing except graduation, which, admittedly, requires that I get up very early, but that's really the only inconvenience. On every other day, I can wake up whenever I want, stretch, and decide to go back to sleep, or embark on some crazy adventure. It's a beautiful existence.

This luxurious life is one perk of having finished my undergraduate degree. Another perk is the respect it commands. People are very impressed by an MIT degree. Generally, I'm treated like an intelligent person in conversation these days, even when the people I'm talking to are much older or more accomplished than I. When I meet new people, they generally ask me about my interests, not just my classes. We find common interests and discuss them. Very nice. As it should be.

Compare this to how I was treated 12 years ago, when I was 10 years old. Now don't get me wrong, I was certainly never mistreated or abused by the adults in my life! But virtually every adult that I met asked me the same 3 questions: "How's school?" "What's your favorite subject?" and "How old are you?" At dinner parties, I was not invited to be a part of the main conversation. (Not that this is unusual - children generally aren't.) Very few adults inquired as to what my interests were or considered that I might have anything in common with him or her.

This sucked, and not just in retrospect. I attended countless dinner parties and felt very left out indeed; I wasn't much interested in watching cartoons (or whatever) with the younger children, and although reading on my own often suited me, sometimes I wanted to be a part of the conversations that the adults were having. Not just because I wanted to be "grown up", but because I had something to say. (Is that really so surprising? Children may think differently, but they certainly don't spend all of their time thinking about toys or food. There's depth, if not the vocabulary to describe it. And even as, say, a 17-year-old, when I definitely had the ability to articulate my thoughts, only very rarely was I considered an adult.) Due to the boredom, I was almost always ready to leave hours before my parents were, and I did my fair share of moping near the door and hanging on my mother's arm and whispering "can't we go yet", much to her annoyance.

I remember promising myself, as a young child, that I would never, ever become the sort of grown up who treats children as understudies, practicing to take over the role of a good adult some day. I was terrified that one day I'd wake up and find that I'd lost all memory and respect for the experience of being a child. One particularly hard day at school, I shut my eyes, crouched on the edge of the playground, and told myself over and over that I'd never forget how it felt to be treated as though my feelings were merely the side effects of the disease of childhood, to be brushed away and ignored.

Now that I'm 22 years old, with a completed college degree, I can stop worrying about what sort of adult I'll grow up to be. As a child, I imagined that when you became an adult, there would be some sort of ceremony, you'd solemnly receive your Adult Status, and you'd promise to stop trying out silly accents, stop loving plain noodles with just butter and salt, and stop crying when you hurt yourself. You'd be Different. Well, thank goodness that's not true. I still love plain noodles with just butter and salt, I still cry if something hurts bad enough, and I love silly accents just as well.

Happy as I was to realize that no cosmic force will prevent me from loving childish things for the rest of my days, some aspects of my transition to Official Adulthood have been disappointing. I am now 100% sure, for example, that my feelings now are not any more important or valid than they were when I was 10, or 5 or, 1 year old. I know more facts, and I'm wiser, but I'm not a different person - I'm the same person I always was, I just get more respect. I feel like shouting back through time, at my little 7-year-old self, huddled on the playground, not to worry, because I will not forget what it felt like to be that age. I was living life, not preparing for it. So are all children. And every adult was once a child - they must all have had this realization. Why, then, are children treated as though they are monsters in need of taming? Why is it acceptable to ignore the desires and feelings of children in favor of the staunch routines and rigid boundaries we are taught we must impose? It seems as though adults have collectively given up on trying to communicate with children. We are not so different, me and my 10-year-old self. A little respect goes a long, long way.

The day after I get my degree, I'll be having a little graduation party, and I've invited the people who probably care the least about my degree. Ironic, isn't it? But these are the people who took me seriously, right from the beginning. They will tell you that I am the same person I always was, and that my interests, though they've certainly developed over the years, have remained remarkably constant. They know this, because back then, instead of talking over my head about Things Children Don't Understand, they spoke to me directly, as an equal. The fact that I've gotten a degree from MIT doesn't change how they treat me, because it doesn't need to. They never needed any special reason to treat me with respect.

Now that I've finished, now that it's summer, now that I'm free and my mind is wide open, I find that the support that has meant the most to me over the years has nothing to do with any of the respect that I have won by being a student at a prestigious college. There is nothing that has meant more to me than unambiguous respect for who I am and what I'm about, regardless of age or accomplishment. Should you ever get the chance to offer this to a child, take the opportunity - the child, and the adult he or she becomes, will never forget it.

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