The Oldest One in the Room

Becoming a member of the 'older' generation feels sudden. Actually, it's been creeping up for a very long time.

Everyone's back in school. Me too. Three semesters a year, I look at a new class of students in my creative writing class: eager faces yearning to discover the secrets of publishing. I write this quote on the board from W. Somerset Maugham: "There are three rules of writing. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." It always gets a laugh—even though most of my students don't know who Maugham was.

I've been a writing professor for over 25 years, but it's only recently that I've begun to feel like a member of the "older" generation. My students don't identify with the word "manuscript," and I have to say "document," demonstrating I'm savvy about their technology-driven culture. They listen to my stories about how I used to write on a typewriter—how quaint, their slightly bemused expressions seem to say, on the verge of asking, "Did they have TV when you were a kid?"

Yes, and cars too. I could reminisce about black and white TV, how my friend Lillian and I used to celebrate the number of new shows broadcast in color each fall season, or how I'd rarely seen my father happier than when he first watched a golf match in "living" color on TV.

Instead, I describe an essay I once published on the killings of antiwar protestors at Kent State in 1970. My students know about it only historically … the way my parents told me about World War II.

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My students used to be my age, or just a bit older. It's a shock that they've gotten younger each year. How did I miss the point that I've gotten older and they've stayed the same age? This semester I am the oldest in the room, on the cusp of my 60th birthday. I've always sounded like, or pretended to be, the wisest one—that's why I was hired to stand behind the podium.

Once one of my students, a retired physician taking my class as a non-credit student, wrote in her introductory bio for the class: "I'm getting used to being the oldest one in the room." Now, suddenly, the same thing has pounced upon me.

Wasn't this supposed to happen gradually? Actually, it's been creeping up for a very long time. The doctors I see are younger than I am. Fashions are created for women born generations after I was and pounds thinner than I am. I discuss my aching joints or arthritis medication during social engagements. And my college-age daughter is exasperated when I act like a fussy antediluvian in restaurants, demanding that the music be turned down.

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My writing mentor, who was in his sixties when I started studying with him in my twenties, was a daunting authority figure who recounted colorful stories about the publishing world of the Algonquin Round Table. His fingers never even touched an electric typewriter. After my father died, my mentor wrote in his condolence note: "It's never easy moving into the 'older generation.'"

When my mother died, I had no choice but to accept my place as the elder stateswoman. "What's the alternative?" she used to say. And so I embrace it.

I work diligently to keep as many toes as I can in my students' generation. To keep up with their popular culture, I watch "Girls" and make sure I know what Miley Cyrus has said or Taylor Swift has sung. I tell my students to follow me on Twitter and breathlessly keep apace with how technology has transformed their world the way air travel changed my parents' lives. Instagram and FaceTime have entered into my teaching vocabulary. But when I ask my daughter if I should be on Snapchat, she shakes her head, silently conveying that I've aged out of certain parts of cyberspace.

Sometimes I can't resist "acting" like one of the oldest ones in the room. I've included a new warning in my syllabus: If your cell phone goes off during class, you are required to bring in chocolate for everyone next week. And my biggest pet peeve is whenever I notice a student texting during class. I always spot them hiding their phones in their laps underneath the desk, the way I used to surreptitiously pass notes in high school. I wrote on one student's final paper: "Don't ever insult another professor by texting in class. It's one of the rudest things I've ever seen."

How old-fashioned and stodgy, she must have thought. After all, she hadn't interrupted my class any more than had she been doodling in the margins of her notebook. But my role as the oldest (and wisest) one in the room is to teach the younger generation—not just about dangling participles and metaphors, but about proper etiquette in our society.

Perhaps that student will refrain from texting in class again. And I will do my best to keep my mind open to embrace the next evolution in our post-blogging world. If I need any help, my daughter will be home from college for Thanksgiving.

Tags: memoirs

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