Today, as I was backing out of my driveway, an older lady came up the road behind me. I didn’t immediately see her because there had just been another car that passed and, honestly, I was thinking about the tiramisu that would soon be in my mouth. As soon as I saw her I stopped. She smiled in a way that struck me as indulgent and condescending, tilted her head, and shook her finger at me. It was like she was scolding a dog or a young child.
I was immediately furious. My reaction was much, much more overwhelmingly strong than if she had yelled at me or flipped me off or honked. I felt like getting out of the car and pummeling her. And I don’t really tend to be an angry person in general. As I drove away, still feeling enraged, I tried to figure out why it made me so angry, and what struck me again was the condescension. In my mind at least, her attitude was directed at me almost solely because of my age in comparison to hers.
When we talk about ageism, usually we talk about how it's directed against older people, how women are belittled for "looking old" and how the elderly are very much mistreated. And this is completely true and not at all okay. But we don't as often talk about how it's also directed against children and young adults.
Being a target of ageism is a huge trigger for me. My entire life, it has been directed against me again and again for being younger than most other people. This has bothered me from the time I’ve been old enough to talk. Everyone everywhere treats kids like they are dumb and if they say something smart it’s like some astounding miracle. Kids are one of only a few groups of people (also many people with medical problems, handicaps and the elderly) that have absolutely zero agency - and no one cares or even thinks about it. I get that they can’t take care of themselves, but we don’t need to treat them like they are dumb or give them fewer opportunities. And we definitely don’t need to treat teenagers and young adults like they are incapable. This society gives children no rights at all. And that is sad and frustrating and frankly scary, because without agency children have no voice to prevent themselves from being harmed.
I started high school at age 12. I was the first of my friends to get a driver’s license. I remember wanting to literally stab the people my parents’ age that used to say things like, “Oh, you better get off the road, Greenheart has her license now!” It just struck me as so belittling and condescending to make me the butt of a joke because I was new at something. I graduated high school and began attending college at 16. I heard all manner of jokes and frustrating comments about it. "Are you sure you're socially ready for that?" All the things that were directed toward me my entire life because I was younger than everyone else can only be described as microaggressions. Little digs. Subtle comments that implied that Oh, you’re just too inexperienced to succeed at this. Even now, because I look young, I’ve been passed up for jobs because no one takes me seriously. A few months ago I was denied a job teaching doctors to use a medical records program that I LITERALLY WROTE THE ONLY EXISTING BOOK ON. And I have two years’ teaching experience at a college level. But somehow they found someone better than me, and I am positive it had a lot to do with my age. Doctors don’t take a 24 year old seriously.
I tried my best to hide my age for awhile: I cut my hair off, wore a lot of makeup, and didn’t tell anyone how old I was. I started grad school before I was old enough to drink and made excuses to get out of going to the bars with everyone else. Of course it didn’t really work, but I tried. Hard. More recently I have sort of given up, and everyone tells me “Oh, it will get better when you’re thirty.” But you know, that’s 6 years, and that might not seem like a lot in the long run, but it’s a lot! And I don’t really deserve to be treated like I’m dumb for the next 6 years! Of course I have a lot to learn, and of course I’ll gain experience. But young people are not dumb. And we do not deserve to be treated with condescension and passed up for opportunities that we are more than capable of succeeding at.
All people need a voice and all people need to be treated with respect. Even children. Even young adults. Even though we still have a lot to learn.