Unlike so many of the things we must adjust to in life, ageism never gets easier to tolerate. In fact, whenever it seems like it might be flattening out, it amplifies again. Current student attitudes are a good example.
I have been teaching for a very long time, and luckily for me, my students have usually accepted me almost immediately. But we are online now, where none of my warm fuzziness is immediately evident. I must seem rather prickly. Worse than that, the volcanic ash of my uncolored hair has made them fear me. Or fear my age.
On the first day of school this semester, waiting in front of my Zoom portal camera for the class to assemble, I overheard one student exclaim to the classmate with whom she shared a computer, “Geeze. How old do you think she is?”
“Whothefuck knows,” her indignant partner croaked. “You’d think they could find teachers who‘ll at least live through the semester.”
I suggested they mute their mic.
Benignant comments are nothing new to me. What was jarring was that the nastiness came from kids. I am more accustomed to having people closer to my age make me feel like a pariah.
When I returned to graduate school for yet another degree at age 69, I expected to be stuck out by my fellow students. But those “kids” became my compadres and were surprisingly supportive, encouraging. We established a great rapport and got along well. The staff, on the other hand, lacked the young people’s generosity.
From day one there were snubs, side comments, slights. They were subtle, hidden in awkward jokes or cast in closeted aspersions. The first time I experienced overt bigotry, a professor — a full professor, a man nearly as old as I! — actually ridiculed my age at a school-wide gathering. An adamant proponent of Freedom of Speech, I managed to remain unflappable. The comment hurt, but after I wrote an essay that included mention of the comment, even though I named no names, that professor ceased to acknowledge my existence. I figured that if he were that sensitive, my presence at my age must be hugely threatening to him. Pity.
In any case, his slight was nothing compared to the insult from the department.
I needed to work to finance the new degree. Every job I applied for in my own school — including jobs that might have helped further me professionally, jobs for which I had limitless experience to handle well — was denied me. Toward the end of my studies, I applied for a teaching fellowship, and even that was out of my reach. Professors routinely ignored my requests for help, my requests for job referrals, my requests for anything that offered pay or advancement. They made excuses. I graciously pretended to believe them. A few very interesting, well-paying work-study positions, which were not even remotely connected to my own work, sustained me. When I defended my thesis, not one of my own faculty members came to my defense. Two strangers whom I had never met comprised the panel of experts providing me the feedback my tuition had bought me. I asked my classmates if they had had the same experience. Every one of them had at least one professor from our department on their thesis committee. There might have been a time in my life when I would have doubted my talent, my intelligence, my appearance. But I see the photos from that time, and besides the fact that my hair had not gone gray, and I looked good, I know my work was as worthy as anyone’s there. I am as bright as anyone I studied with. I’m just old.
I get it. Why back a horse who is so old its sponsor could never even wish for a Triple Crown.
Fortunately, because I am financially unable to retire, I am grateful that my terminal degree opened the door to adjunct college teaching. One of the professors from my department, though not my teacher, wrote me a lovely letter of recommendation that failed a few times but finally landed me a position in the CUNY system. I would rather be doing almost any other kind of teaching than the kind that requires reading reams of freshman papers, but at least the system acknowledges that my age group has the chops to do the work. Would I prefer to be doing any one of the ten or so jobs I applied for and for which I was eminently qualified when I arrived in New York already too old at age 56? Yes. But teaching in a college classroom sure beats any of the jobs most of my co-age-bracketeers is doing.
Which brings me to the most egregious insult of ageism.
The internet is filled with invitations to seniors to apply for customer service positions. I get daily and entirely unsolicited emails from job search companies masquerading as employment agencies offering me maintenance work, crossing guard positions. They suggest I am perfect to be a department store greeter, an Amazon packager, a mail sorter.
When was the last time a young person welcomed you to Walmart? Or beeped you through the entry stile at a movie theater? Or pointed to the slot into which you are expected to put your ticket as you ease out of a parking lot? The lower the IQ required for a job, the more likely an employer is to seek an older person to fill it. We can’t possibly be smart or capable if we have reached this impossible age and are still not solvent enough to retire.
Yup. We old folk who still need to work are an embarrassment in this world that worships money, admires wealth. Americans labor under the illusion that being “comfortable” is synonymous with being trustworthy. We have been taught to buy the myth of the American Dream — if we work hard enough, we can achieve great status. If we have not, then we are lazy, incompetent, unintelligent. Worthless.
Well, most of us are not among the one-percenters, who cast their long shadows across our attitudes. Most elderly Americans cannot afford to retire unless a benevolent offspring takes them in. Which is, to most of us, the kiss of death. We have worked hard all our lives, but for reasons beyond our control, the blessing of prosperity has eluded us. We are not poor. So long as we keep working. We are not disabled. So long as we remain in good health. The least we have earned is the respect of our compatriots.
Other countries’ cultures venerate their elderly, make social adjustments so that their geriatric citizens need not fear homelessness, abandonment, hunger. They venerate their elderly.
That’s its own kind of ageism, I guess. Can I trade?