28 August 2006

Young boys and a man

While looking out the window at a rainy Newark Airport and waiting for a very delayed flight, I found myself standing next to a young boy — perhaps five or six — eating a large roll of bread. I struck up a conversation, and we were soon joined by his older brother — six or seven. I let the conversation go wherever it wandered, and learned quite a lot: that their father is a pilot; that the Yankees are the best baseball team, pitching is the best position, and next year they won't use the tee until you get six strikes; that the bushes below the hotel in Hawaii with the big rooms (three balconies in the suite!) now house a favorite action figure; that the police climbing the stairs into the jet-way were probably entering the airplane, because if there were a bad guy in the terminal, the security would have caught him in the initial screening (in fact, they were there to escort a very drunk passenger, who had repeatedly opened an alarmed door, from the terminal to the hospital).

After a while, their farther joined us at the window. "Tell the man next to you" — me — "what the kind of plane with the bump on top is," he asked his younger son. "I'll give you a hint: it starts Seven...."
"Um, Seven Seven?"
"No, Seven Forty-Seven."
"Seven Forty-Seven."
"And if there are [a particular kind of wing flaps]" — here my memory of the technical terms, which he used, has gone — "then it's a 747-400."

What I found most memorable about this discussion was not the ease with which we changed topics — an ease I normally associate with the uniformly brilliant kids at Mathcamp; an ease often pathologized as ADHD and ruined with drugs such as speed ritalin — nor the freedom with which these kids would talk to a complete stranger. What stuck with me was one particular piece of language: "Tell the man next to you..."

Those who've known me for a while may remember previous discussions I've had (though I think not here) about the different words "boy", "man", "kid", etc., which I find fascinating. I've intentionally used some throughout this entry: Mathcamp students and five-year-olds I've both described as "kids," for instance, whereas my first companion was a "young boy." I generally insist that periodicals refer to high school, and certainly college, students as "men" and "women": my freshman roommate was on the men's swim team, and in my brother's CS class there are only six women, as opposed to "boys'" and "girls." Mathcampers, on the other hand, and even my housemates, I often think of as "boys and girls". Not "children," perhaps, but "kids."

What's hardest, though, is self-identity — I'm good at holding multiple contradictory beliefs about the external realty — I had never before defined myself as someone who could be a "man [standing] next to you." Perhaps, when discussing sexual and gender politics, I've identified myself as a "(suitably adjectived) man," but more often as a "male." Categories like "men who have sex with men" are so entirely foreign and don't seem to apply to me or any of my peers. People in my socioeconomic class don't become "adults" until closer to 26, but I'm definitely no longer a "young adult." I'm a "student" or a "guy," not a "man."

One reason for my sojourn to New York was to attend a ninetieth birthday party and family reunion, where I spent some time chatting with various second cousins whom I haven't seen in ten years. My father, an older brother, is younger than his cousins, so while I played cards and board games with my fourteen-year-old cousin, the majority of "my generation" were three to ten years older than me. One announced the wonderful news of her pregnancy, making the matriarch whose birthday we were celebrating extremely happy. I'm used to my peers consisting of younger siblings and students exactly my age; I'm used to understanding those classmates only a few years older than me as significantly closer to adult, since they tend to be grad students when I'm an undergrad, or undergrads when I'm in high school.

But I'll be graduating in four months, and dreaming of my own apartment, and, eventually, house and family. I watch my fresh-out-of-college friends with their jobs in Silicon Valley, and can't help but think how similar that life is to college — they have roommates, come to campus, go on dates. They're no more "adults" than I am.

I have no trouble being "mature", or "old", or even relatively "grown up". But I'm twenty-one years old, and have a hard time thinking of myself as an "adult". Identifying as a "man" is impossible, and it is my current self-descriptor.

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