Allison, your local flightless bird.
The restraints we create ourselves are perhaps the most confining. They are neither innate nor unavoidable, yet we tie ourselves to them as though we cannot escape. It is most often not the thing itself which restrains us, but the expectations we place upon it, the meaning we force onto a word with an otherwise unimpeded definition.
The one which has exasperated me most is the concept of age. While it is unavoidable to be only a certain number of months, years, and decades old, the way we perceive the implications of age is entirely unnatural. As a society, we place certain expectations on a child, on a teenager, on an adult. A child is cute for misbehaving, some say, they don’t know any better. All teenagers will rebel, others bemoan, they need to learn from their mistakes. We place rigid expectations on a person based solely on the number of sunsets they have witnessed and the ticks of the second hand on a clock they have lived through.
When I was younger, I was told to use my age as an indication of the number of words I could write in a sentence. You’re eight, I was instructed, that means eight words to a sentence. While the idea was meant to illustrate to a first grader an increased use of vocabulary and complexity of thought with increased age, even at eight years old, I could see its limits. “Why should I add another word to a sentence if I only need seven?” I asked my teacher. “What happens when people get really old,” I asked, “how do they ever write all those long sentences?”
Though my teacher reassured me it wasn’t a hard and fast rule, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong with the concept. It took greater maturity before I realized why it bothered me so much. Of course not every eight year old should be able to write eight-word-long sentences. Some eight year olds are amazing at writing. Others are miserable. And mostly, it has very little to do with the age of the writer. I don’t deny that people take time to develop. Someone born yesterday cannot write a sonnet. But being eighty-five doesn’t ensure one’s ability to write advanced poetry either.
When I was in third grade, I wanted to skip straight to fifth. I was bored with the math we were learning, and I had been told I had a middle school reading level. I simply wanted to learn more than what was being presented to me in school. My principal wouldn’t allow it. I was told they “just didn’t do things that way.” So I spent the next year bored in my classes. Was it because I was ten and able to write one more word in my sentences than the nine year olds in my class? In reality, my age suggested I was in the proper grade. In fact, it was my age which was holding me back. I belonged in third grade based on the year I was born. The child in fourth grade who wasn’t able to pass his tests was pushed along to fifth the year after simply because his birthdate determined it should be that way.
Every year that followed this, I felt the same restraints, and the same disappointments. My age limited what grade I was in, and my grade limited my access to knowledge. My age defined people’s expectations of what I was capable of, of what responsibilities I could handle. I was excused for my actions because I was young. Others’ expectations of my behavior subconsciously informed me as to how I should act. Instead of being expected that I conduct myself with the maturity I clearly displayed, I was expected to act twelve, or fifteen, or seventeen, or whatever age I had turned on my previous birthday. It was a limiting expectation, often, rather than one which stretched me to grow.
Home schooling has allowed me brief, if only partial, respite from this maddening system. Many students I have met are neither constrained nor concerned with their grade level, as there aren’t any laws enforcing a student only enroll in high school when they’re of the proper age. Instead, when asked what grade they’re in, many students respond with “I’m not sure” and upon being asked when they plan to graduate, I’ve often received the answer “when I’m ready” or “maybe after I get to take calculus.” It’s a different method of thinking. A student is not defined by their age, and thus, their life is not restricted by it. The courses they take are determined by their willingness and ability. Their maturity is informed by their conduct, by their mental development, by their own knowledge of how they should behave. It is a liberating system.
Sometimes I wish I lived in a world where people had an objective measure of maturity. I picture a reality not unlike a Sims game, a green meter over each person’s head, filling each time they learn from an experience or develop their character. People could look to those with fuller meters for guidance, they could help those who’s meters were near empty. They could find comfort with those objectively like them. While its improbable, if not impossible, that something like this could exist, it reminds me stop propagating thinking that stymies others’ growth. I try to prevent myself from placing expectations on others simply because the candles on their birthday cake this year were the shape of a specific number. After all, it turns out being seventeen means I’ve got a lot of learning to do. But it also doesn’t mean I’m restrained to a certain amount of knowledge, or wisdom, or maturity because I’ve only gotten out of bed 6,475 times, or celebrated 4 leap years, or survived 925 Mondays.
So let’s celebrate birthdays, but also growth, maturity, and even sentences that ramble on for seventeen words.