Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Ageism in School

It's my first day of fifth grade. I walk in and recognize about half the faces. These are the people I've shared lunch tables and playgrounds with since kindergarten. The others are half-familiar. I've walked by them on the way to the bus, sat in front of them in assemblies, but never actually interacted with them. The sixth graders.
We're the only classroom of our kind in the school. A mixed class of fifth and sixth graders. Ms. Rogers, a teacher some of them have had before, tries to explain this elaborate seating chart she's cooked up. We're arranged alphabetically and by gender. Sounds complicated.
"Can't you just organize us as fifth graders and sixth graders?" asks one of the older girls. Jacqueline, once I get to know her.
"We're not fifth and sixth graders in here."
Somehow, she made it work. Not just the seating chart but everything else. We lived in the best of both worlds. The sixth graders got to repeat field trips that should've been a once in a lifetime opportunity. We all went to fifth grade lunch but didn't come in from recess until the sixth grade whistle blew. There was absolutely no segregation. We learned out of the same textbooks, which is odd now that I look back on it. Shouldn't the sixth graders have been more intelligent, more educated, more capable than us? They weren't, we learned.
We should've been in different classes, different hallways, different lunches, different lives. If we lived back east we would've gone to different schools. But we learned to forgot those differences. And moreimportantly, we built friendships.
When I went into middle school I already had friends to guide me around. That helped. Because as a brand new seventh grader, I was no longer queen of the hill like the year before. And I wasn't the equal student I'd been in Ms. Rogers' class.
I learned to keep my head down. I learned not to mention my age. I learned to sit on my backpack to look taller. I learned that if an eighth grader cheated in math class, I should ignore it, because I was only a sevvie and didn't know any better.
What hurt me most wasn't the bullying. It was that next year, I watched ex-sevvies turn around and do it to the new students. Or they outright ignore them. People walk past their camp friends, their neighborhood friends, their dance friends without making eye contact. School isn't the place for that.
It was in eighth grade that I really started to think about ageism. That I realized there's something wrong about looking down on someone just because they were born a few months later than you. That people feel so beaten down by the bullying and ostracizing that they feel the need to pick on someone for not being the same size. I spent my first year of middle school just waiting to become an eighth grader so I wouldn't feel inferior. So I wouldn't be inferior.
But when the new school year rolled around, I was no different. There would always be people older and there would always be someone behind me. That it was my decision to let age impact the way I viewed other people. The way I viewed myself.
School is where ageism begins. Where we develop the need to be bigger, stronger, older. Where we learn to look down on others to feel better about ourselves. This is why, later on, adults believe teenagers are inferior. They learned to think this way when they were teenagers themselves.
Don't ever let yourself believe that you are inferior. To older grades, to high school graduates, to adults. Age will always change. You can't stop that. But you choose what it means to you.

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