I don’t know about other old folks, but I intend to keep rockin’, and so does my wife.
I used American Short Stories, a collection by Perfection Learning, to teach junior English back when I labored in the trenches of Arizona high schools. One story I favored was James Thurber’s classic about a meek man lost in a fantasy world. But I found that, with few exceptions, teenagers did not get “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” When a lone boy roared with laughter at reading it, I could have hugged him. Because by that time, I’d grown to expect a bland or even annoyed reaction to the humor classic.
I tended to use the questions at the back of each book’s story I taught, a page called “Responding to the Story,” to evaluate student appreciation. The returns on “Walter Mitty” bludgeoned my hopes for it. The students almost uniformly saw it as a depressing tale about “this old guy who’s losing it.”
“Old guy,” “old dude,” “old man” – that was their takeaway. Nothing about what Thurber put on the page: a henpecked (middle-aged!) husband who soars into realms of imagination that make him a hero, whether as a surgeon, a courtroom lawyer, or a fighter pilot. Hell, the onomatopoeia alone is worth the price of admission with writing this brilliant.
You can’t enforce enjoyment, and surprises are rife in the teaching business. I used Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” which I never liked, to great student acclaim. Conversely, I should have become accustomed to kids not digging stories I adored. But this one hurt in a special way; it nagged at me. Even if Walter Mitty was “old,” in his sixties or seventies, did that make him an unsympathetic character? I sensed active disdain among the young readers, something beyond mere student dullness. A bias was at play.
Prejudice against the aged has survived the onslaught of woke rebuke, as Bill Maher said on his HBO show. Old people have been the most vulnerable to COVID, making us all mask up and suffer. Old people hog the public trough with their nagging Social Security needs. Old people constitute a bigger and bigger part of the populace, expect a bigger and bigger piece of the pie. Go die and get out of the way, old people.
We’ll never have herd immunity because of shot antagonism, and part of that is based on prejudice against old people. The CDC said if we’re fully vaccinated we needn’t mask up, not if we don’t want to, and needn’t feel guilty about it. I will show up at Walmart next shift without the cursed mask, which I always had to take off to scratch or blow my blasted nose. Walmart even offers an incentive: if you want a $75 boost to your paycheck, show us you’ve been vaccinated. I sense at least half the workers there haven’t gotten shots. To a large extent it’s Trumpian bullshit — the thing’s all a ruse to put Democrats in power, don’t you know.
Among the youth, the resistance is tinged with the abovementioned prejudice. Again, I heard a broadside against dreaded, hated old people, spoken with veiled venom by a young person, one I happened to like and still do! (They know not their own hearts, dear Lord.) We were working the dairy cooler, trying to get milks and creamers into the sliding slots leading down to the customers out there, when I heard Braylon tell another, older guy he wouldn’t get the shot. “It’s just something old people had to worry about. I’m young. I’m not gonna do it.” But I’m sure, what with the “honor system” Walmart feels compelled to use, that this young man will represent himself as having been vaccinated and, with no vaccination card to present, work unmasked.
I shouldn’t be surprised. When I took a “retirement” job at Walmart, I found the same intergenerational dynamic at play as I’d found in the classroom.
I grew to resent a sarcastic young man who, without realizing it, was speaking snidely to me, almost talking down to me. Me! a man in his middle sixties. I had thought the imprint of age merited respect, but not to today’s generation.
My gig starts before dawn. I got used to showing up in the wee hours when the night crew was coming down its home stretch. Drew, a tart-tongued young man, would be on the paper and chem aisle, where it might be my job to help him finish stocking the overnight freight. After a brief period of enjoying his sassy rejoinders and heartening, conspiratorial bitches about working at the store, I began to find something dismissive about him, even borderline insulting, in a way I couldn’t pin down.
“Please break down your boxes. You’ll fit more in the baaaaaler …” he chided me in singsong as I stood over the rolling paperboard waste bin, beating my hands to pulp trying to collapse stiff double-wall corrugated containers that had held laundry detergent. Though I learned to wear work gloves to protect my hands, better wielding them as cutting blades and ripping claws, I remained offended by his mocking, suggestive tone, which implied not so much annoyance as absence of the need to defer to a man well into his sixties.
Was I “reading into” Drew’s manner because of my defensiveness and insecurity, even lingering emotional bruises from the way kids at the end of my “teaching” career regarded me? I worked the same kind of job as he. If he was treating me as an equal, so what?
But that was just it; that was the offense. Despite my failure at classroom management during those last, bad teaching years, I figured I deserved respect because I was old, had lived long, suffered long, learned much.
I know now I was naïve, my learning partial. If only the most forbearing and mature students were nice to me, that was to be expected. You’re good at that job, teaching at-risk youth, or you’re in the crosshairs.
But there was something more, something broader and more sociological, that explained the thing. A lot of these boys had no father figure. They came from households featuring a mother, her latest partner, and the kids. If the “father figure” is a stepdad out of prison with a swastika across his chest sharing a meth pipe with a 14-year-old, the myth of reverence for the elder male might go out the window. All across the socioeconomic spectrum, not just the white rural ghetto where I taught, the era of the nuclear family, and of some Norman Rockwell dad carving the Sunday roast beef, seems to have run its course.
Ah, what’s the use? I can kvetch all I want. My cohort and I will still die off and the young punks will take over.
I like to be optimistic though. Call it my brand of patriotism. I have to believe that today’s youth will acknowledge the secret weapon of the aged, their very years, and that young people will humble themselves to the lengthening shadow of mortality by whose lessons we learn how to live.