We never lose our ability to dream. Life’s grind is always counterbalanced by life’s fairyland. (Photo blithely appropriated from the World Wide Web.)
How old will I get? Hard to say.
Just a little old? Methuselah old?
I hope it doesn’t morph too far beyond the current state of disintegration. Half-moon bags under my eyes. Male-pattern baldness. Hemorrhoid that comes and goes. Sciatica which requires me to lean on a door jamb while putting on my underpants. Swollen prostate making my urinations longer.
Yet I am vigorous for a man on the brink of sixty-seven. I lift weights three times a week, hike my dog mucho miles.
I have been thinking about age and how I regarded old people when I was young.
I may have been arrogant, looked down on them. My sister said I once cruelly mocked palsied Uncle Joe. I feel bad about that. I had no right.
A guy in the Walmart break room, back in spring, groused to me about this pandemic “bullshit,” how it just meant a bunch of old people would die, and who cared?
“It’s like … Darwinian. The population has to thin, always has. But they’re making a big deal out of it.”
I grunted noncommittally, trying to make my own my sense of the newly announced “menace.”
Back when I taught high school English, I discerned a sneering, dismissive attitude toward the aged.
As my career progressed, the kids in my classrooms trended more and more toward delinquency and the impossibility of graduation. They sat there illiterate and intransigent, and they hated you. They hated you because they hated all the other male authority figures in their lives.
You read about countries like Japan where the aged are revered. Or Native American cultures, sachems holding forth around the fire, fonts of ancient lore and enduring wisdom, interpreters of dreams. That is not America, certainly not our reality now. We’re all hung up on the respective ages of two old farts battling it out for the presidency.
When I’d started at the county-run “accommodation” school program, it was fun. The kids were naughty but curious. It was a little one-room schoolhouse, a catch basin for kids who’d otherwise slip down the drain. Yavapai County High School admitted wayward teens who just didn’t work out in big regular public schools, usually for absenteeism. We were their last chance.
I could get them to read. I used books and traditional writing assignments.
My cabinet of books became moot as, over the years, more chilling criminal elements, particularly of one outlying high-desert town, began (for district money reasons) to be admitted into our schools.
Yes, schools. Now there were two of them.
Aspire, the new high school built by the Yavapai Accommodation School District, was a miniature “real” high school, hallway spurring out to discrete subject-area classrooms, which became competing entertainment venues, each teacher vying for popularity with his own special audiovisual system.
As hardened fuckups became our clientele, everything went to the computer. We “taught” the unteachable. They would not read or learn; they bided their time, sitting there because probation officers had prodded them in.
But even back when I could get kids to read, I’d found a certain antipathy to written content that was about old people.
Case in point: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” about a meek, hen-pecked man who finds refuge in a fantasy world where he is a hero, saving the day as surgeon, fighter pilot, courtroom lawyer.
Every kid who wrote a reaction said the same thing. “There’s this old dude and he’s losing it. It’s sad.” They saw a depressing tale about clinical delusion. There was nothing funny about it.
Once – only once – did I see a young person crack up at this classic tale.
Tyler was a lanky youth longing for the military. He took a deep breath and committed himself to “triple,” meaning go to morning, afternoon, and evening shifts to cram in as many credits per unit time as humanly possible. Thirteen hours among kids arrayed around desktop PCs and perimeter carrels, teachers scheduled like nurses. You could be on from seven a.m. to two p.m., or three to ten.
A kid might “double,” stretching himself across two of the three shifts. But Tyler, bent on the Navy, had a deadline in mind by which to be accepted. Ready to dive-bomb off the board, he held his nose and plunged in for an improbably extended daily immersion in remedial education.
One task was to plow through American Short Stories for my junior English course.
I was on one afternoon when suddenly he erupted in loud crazy uncontrollable laughter in his chair around a table.
He was reading “Walter Mitty,” I heard him explain to the students around him, who wondered whether Tyler was hysterical from overwork.
I ambled by to chat with him and thrilled to realize that this story – which I’d been thinking of dropping from the course – had got over on someone. He identified with Walter Mitty.
There’s no greater pleasure in reading than to have such moments; or, in teaching, to see them take place.
I don’t know whether he went on to serve in the military, but I do know he exercised his humanity on that long late afternoon, when mordant James Thurber spoke to him about the compensatory mechanism of the human mind.
We’re all – if we’re lucky – going to get old someday.
My dad used to say, “People are like onions. They grow in layers.”
The imaginative faculty of the child never disappears.
To live is to dream. We can weather any prosaic chore, endure the whole slog of our grumpy round, if we never lose that child inside, who is always open to the adventure.
Because sometimes it’s the adventure within that sustains us.