Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963. He was 34.
I don't feel like a "sir."
I've noticed lately that young adults are calling me "sir," and I don't like it. I don't feel like I'm old enough to have earned this honorific, and frankly, I've just gotten used to being called by my first name by strangers, as happens all the time with customer service representatives, salespeople, doctors, anyone else I encounter who can figure out my name. My school students call me "Mr. Anderson," but my private students call me "Mark," and I'm fine with that. I don't mind that, when I log in at the gym with my fingerprint and phone number, whichever hot young receptionist behind the front desk calls me "Mark," whether or not this is his or her first time seeing me. That almost forced casualness has become a part of American culture, and while I occasionally roll my eyes at the loss of the formal mode of communication, it's what I'm used to, so I don't mind it.
And that's why being called "sir," as one of those receptionists did yesterday as I left the gym, is such a shock.
Looking in a mirror, I see a "sir." I see a middle-aged man with thinning hair, a gray beard, and a face creased with laugh lines and wrinkles. If I were a 23-year-old receptionist at 24 Hour Fitness and saw me heading out the door after a workout, I'd probably say "Have a great day, sir!" too.
Still, not looking in the mirror, I have to say I don't feel old enough to be a "sir."
All around me are signs of how old I really am. My friends from high school and college are becoming grandparents, and while my kids have not yet graced me with a grandchild, they're certainly old enough. I subscribe to AARP Magazine. Nobody checks my ID when I purchase alcohol. My teaching salary is finally starting to look like it should for a man of my years. In many settings, I feel like a receive more respect than I deserve simply because I look distinguished.
And still, I don't feel it.
I know part of what's keeping me from embracing my "sir" status is my perceived lack of accomplishments. I was keenly aware of this last week watching Selma, seeing the young British actor David Oyelowo portraying Martin Luther King, Jr., and knowing that, at 38, he is exactly the right age for the part. King was 36 when he received the Nobel Peace Prize, 39 when he was shot to death in Memphis. Not even 40, and he had done more to change the world than most people accomplish in a lifetime twice that long.
Where was I at 39? Freshly divorced for the second time, my ministerial career in ruins, still almost three years away from returning to teaching.
I know it's unfair to compare myself to a giant like MLK, or even to someone my own age who's done great things (Barack Obama, for instance). We know about such persons precisely because they're exceptional. They had the drive, the passion, the ambition, the commitment, the talent to initiate and see through projects that transformed communities, states, nations. Much of their notoriety comes from being at the right place and the right time. It has to be that way, because as much as our culture values youth, its respect is mostly reserved for age. To do something significant at a young age, one must have far more operating in one's favor than just a nifty idea.
I can comfort myself with this truth, and yet still, as my 54th birthday approaches, I have to wonder what I could have accomplished if I hadn't been vocationally floundering for most of my youth. What if I'd listened to all the teachers and professors who complimented me on my writing, and changed my major to English? Or what if I'd followed my keenest interest and chosen political science? What if I'd applied myself to the performance side of my music degree, and become a professional pianist? What if I'd stuck with the novels, really learned how to write fiction with economy and precision, to rein in my tendency to overwrite, and kept perfecting and submitting those pages until I found a publisher and finally saw my byline on a book? As an adolescent, I actually fantasized about being the youngest science fiction writer ever to see print, but took hardly any steps to make that come true.
A month from 54, I must acknowledge some things about myself: I have not, by and large, had the ambition to really make a name for myself. I've been mostly concerned with paying my bills and providing a home for myself and my loved ones, and have never really taken the risks necessary to explore an artistic vocation. I have found work that is fulfilling and rewarding, but it's work I trained for as a youth and gave up on almost as soon as I first tried it. Had I stuck with it then, rather than running back to university, I could now be counting the days to retirement. Instead, I will probably be working at least until I'm 70--which is only sixteen years away--to be sure there's enough pension to keep Amy and me housed and healthy for our twilight years.
These are hard thoughts to have, thoughts that can generate more regret than is really necessary. I know for a certainty that I would not be who I am today without the experiences that shaped me--the studies, the work, the marriages, the many stumbles along the journey that has brought me here--and, I must admit, that have kept me from feeling that "been there, done that" sense I see in so many of my colleagues. Teachers in the their 50s are usually sliding into home, with three-plus decades of experience under their belts. They're hardened veterans, masters of the profession who know almost instinctively what to do in any classroom situation. I still have to think through a lot of what I do, and when a class goes south, I can't always improvise my way to a satisfying conclusion. That has me feeling like more of a journeyman than a master, like a 30-something rather than a gray-hair.
And that's a good thing. I remember many years ago hearing a recording of Martin Luther King preaching his "Mountaintop" sermon, the one in which he talks about coming to the end of his pilgrimage, seeing the promised land in the distance, yet sensing that he won't get there with his people. He was 39 when he preached that. Daniel Oyelowo portrays him as weary, burned out, beaten down by the struggle to grant basic Constitutional rights to people who have suffered centuries of abuse simply because of the color of their skin. I know that, at 39, I was also at an end, ready to leave ministry, but terrified of what would come next.
Unlike King, I got to have a second act. I got to start over, a new teacher with old degrees, and this time I patiently lived through and learned from those hard early years, finally growing into a sense of competence and occasional mastery. The full mastery of being in a job for multiple years and watching students grow up is still elusive to me, though I intend, a year and a half into this position, to stay with it through at least one generation of children. Because I came back to teaching after 40, I have a hope that it will never seem old to me, that even when I finally do embrace retirement, I'll feel like I just started teaching. There'll be no sag in my shoulders, no dimming of the sparkle in my eyes. I may even feel too young to be walking away from this job.
My grandmother wrote one best seller that has seen multiple printings in several different languages. The title was Don't Put On Your Slippers Yet, and it was about starting a new life in one's golden years. She wrote from her own experience of becoming a college professor and writer in her 50s. And while she was always a grand old lady who merited every ounce of respect she received from the young adults around her, she never did relax into full retirement, continuing to travel, study, and write well into her 90s.
So what if I didn't earn a Nobel in my 30s? So what if I have yet to publish a single word of fiction, to perform as a soloist rather than background music, to scale the proverbial mountaintop? I may just be at the perfect age to start doing great things--or to simply acknowledge that great things are happening all the time around me, whether or not they go viral.
So yeah, stop calling me "sir," kid. I just got here.