I work at a university. For my day job, that is. So I spend lots of time around undergraduates. When I first started working on campus I commented to my boss that that day must have been the day of tours for middle school students.
“They’re everywhere,” I said.
“Yeah, those are freshmen,” he said.
“Oh, not the group I saw,” I said. “They had to be in middle school.”
“Look again. Probably freshmen,” he said in his normal deadpan.
I ventured back out to get a cup of coffee and turns out he was right. They were freshmen at orientation with their terrified parents. And they looked so painfully young. Did I look that young at 18? With boy-short hair and weighing in around 100 pounds, I’m sure I did. I’m sure I looked even younger.
Sometimes, working on a college campus, I get all dazed and confused, all I get is older and they stay the same age and not in a leching-Matthew-McConaughey kind of way but in a I-really-do-get-older-and-they-really-do-stay-between-18-and-22 kind of way. It’s taken me two years of working on campus to realize that if most traditionally aged undergrads look 13 to me, I must look to them like just another middle-aged lady. To them, I could be 30, I could be 50.
I was in the post office on campus recently mailing a package and I used a credit card. The boy behind the counter asked to see my ID. I showed him and he studied it, then me, then it again as though I was a 19-year-old trying to buy beer on a Saturday night.
He knew I was old enough to buy beer it seemed from his next question.
“Are you Cody Savage’s mom?”
“Um, no,” I said. “There are a few of us with this last name in Missoula.”
I should have left it there. I should have walked away thinking that Cody was 10 and that this guy, who could only have been 16, at best, was his soccer coach or something.
“Is Cody a friend of yours?” I said knowing I was walking into dangerous territory.
“Yeah, well, he’s my brother’s best friend,” he said as he continued to process my package.
This is the next point at which I should have left well enough alone and let myself go on thinking Cody was not a college student. But I didn’t, I couldn’t.
“How old is Cody,” I said trying to seem casual.
“Oh, he’s 22,” he said.
I took my receipt and walked away. How could he possibly think I could have a 22 year-old kid, I thought? I mean…and then I did the math. I am 39. And it is biologically possible that I could have a 22 year-old child. I let that sink in a bit as I walked back to my office.
Later that day I walked back across campus and decided to start treating these college students as the young adults they are instead of constantly being amazed at how young they seem. It has been MORE THAN 20 years since I stood where they stand in my flip-flops and patchouli, the biggest decisions in front of me revolving around what I should eat for lunch or when I should go for a run.
Somehow, I suppose, it’s a little shocking to me that it has been that long but when I look in the mirror, I know I am so much closer to being Cody Savage’s mom than I am to being the college student I once was. I worry about my own kids who happen to be 6 and 8 years old just as I’m sure Cody’s mom worries about him. I do mom things: go to the grocery store, fold the laundry, pay the bills. I say the things moms say: wear shoes or take off your socks outside, you need to make a protein choice, leave your sister alone. I fret over the lunches I pack for my daughters, then forget to pack my own. I run, still, a little slower these days but maybe a little smarter than I did when I was 19 and would head out alone at night in the city. Truth is, in every way, I am someone’s mother.
And that’s what I’m going to choose to believe the kid at the counter at the post office saw. Maybe he saw in me someone he could trust, someone who would tell him to wear his jacket, and someone who might scold him for staying out too late. Just as I chose to change my image of college students, I am also changing in my mind the image they have of me. To them, I’m not just some middle-aged lady roaming campus. I am someone’s mother, somewhere between 30 and 50, who must project some small air of looking like I know what I’m doing. Like I said, this is what I’m choosing to believe. I’m also choosing to take it as the big compliment that it is.