Welcome to the new school year at York Prep! With these September Thoughts, I want to particularly welcome our new families. I started writing these essays in 2004 so that my students (I teach all of the seniors) could critique my writing just as I critique theirs. I think this is about the 140th monthly piece I have written and, clearly, some are more humorous and better written than others.
A new school year is both invigorating and fun. We older folks get to reunite with our young charges and, while helping them achieve their best, participate in the energy that is youth. We need this yearly jab in the arm. There are very few guides (actually I know none that make any sense to me) to tell us how to age gracefully, whatever that cliché means. Most of us are surprised by the number of candles on our metaphorical birthday cake. We think “that cannot be me, I am not that old, there must be a mistake; I feel much younger!”
One of my favorite poems when I was a young man (by which I mean in my 20’s) was written by the English poet, Jenny Joseph in 1961. It is entitled “Warning.” Because some of you may not know it and may find it amusing, I will quote it in full.
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
I should immediately say that Jenny Joseph was 29 when she wrote this poem. Obviously a young person, because it is clearly bunk! I do not know any people of age who have lost their inhibitions. The picture the poet paints of senior citizens breaking all the rules just does not happen. Indeed, it seems quite the opposite. We stay respectable, try and lower our cholesterol by being practical about what we eat, mind our manners, and generally become quite conservative in our ways. These dreams of ageing with bravado, these fantasies of not going quietly, this illusion that we will have license to break the rules, are all thoughts in our younger minds that have no basis in reality. As we grow older, we do not “make up for the sobriety” of our youth.
Just as Jenny Joseph fantasized about how she might grow old, many parents have fantasized about how different they might be as parents to their children than their own parents were to them. They will be friends and play games with them, they will discuss books and movies, they will go the gym together, they will participate in their growing up. And many of these fantasies are equally lacking in reality. Most (if not all) parents become mystified when their adolescent children have mood swings. They are baffled when their teenagers are more sensitive to peer opinions than their parents’ opinions. They cannot understand why their children cease to be sensible and challenge all the rules of the house.
It seems that, across the lifespan, we are woefully bad predictors of human behavior. We cannot seem to fathom the ways we will manage our children, and we cannot imagine how we will act as we age. Despite our best efforts, our children will be adolescents and we will not become bohemians. The good news for parents is that adolescents soon grow up. The prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain that gives us judgment skills, develops and adolescents become sensible, practical adults. Just like all the rest of us. That is, until they begin to fantasize about the mischief they will wreak when they become “old people.”
So, as my generation ages, as we stay thin, avoid sausages, and attempt to lower our blood pressure, I want to welcome the young to York Prep. Each day, they should aspire to be joyful, to discover something about themselves, and even to have fun. Some students will spend time testing the limits of their freedom, and we at York Prep will respect them and understand them while guiding them to make more sensible decisions. Most students will fantasize about their future freedoms, just like Jenny Joseph, parents, teachers, and even a few older folks. Maybe someday, but for now I will not be wearing slippers in the rain or a red hat. And no, I will not learn how to spit.
Ronald P. Stewart