In one of my favorite short stories, a young narrator, describing her tenth birthday says, “When you are ten, you are also 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.” I recently turned 44, but I believe I am also 43, 42, 41, 40, 39, 38 . . . and without belaboring the countdown, I’m sure you get the idea. I believe I am each and every year I have lived— and I try to listen to the voices of all the years within me.
Long ago when I stumbled upon this short story, I was surprised by how it stuck with me. I think it was the emotional prick of a story about a child having an unhappy birthday that pierced my intellectual balloon. I was a veteran high school teacher, an academic who worked diligently to promote critical thinking and reasoned analysis. After all, aren’t these the skills schools should promote? That’s what I thought when I was 35, 34, 33, and 32 . . . heck, that’s what I told myself since the time I began teaching. But as I have aged, and especially since I have become a parent, I have a stronger desire to reckon with the voices of my past— those emotionally charged shouts, those cracked voices broken by bad memory, and those whispers tinged by pain, pleasure, sorrow, and joy.
Try as I might to continue teaching the symbolism and narrative structure of this emotional story, all I could do was feel the hurt, loneliness, and fear of the narrator more deeply year after year. It finally got to the point where I was afraid that my lesson plan might come down to this: “Students, this story we’re about to read is the most profound piece of literature ever written. It is the only story you will ever need to hear.” After reading the story to my students, I would then reinforce my point by announcing my retirement, wiping away a tear or two, and walking slowly out of the classroom. Needless to say, this is a lesson plan I could not reasonably, critically, or financially support. I’d become irrational, and overly emotional. Even though I was nearing 40, I felt 13, 12, 11, maybe even 10. Eventually, I just stopped teaching the story.
I am a husband, a father, and I am still a teacher, but once I let go of teaching this story, I started to grab hold of what I believe: I am 7, laughing as I capture creek frogs in glass jars. I am 18, kissing my girlfriend in her driveway under the quiet stars. I am 34, nearly fainting while watching the birth of my daughter. I am 40, finding the voice and courage to teach students the importance of memory and emotion. I am 44, but I am also 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1; and I believe in listening to all the ages within me.
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