When I was small, fifth graders were terrifying and the teenagers at Six Flags seemed threatening (or at least threateningly cool in my big eyes that thought I’d never get to be so grown, or quite so good at pulling off North Face fanny packs as purses).
Older people to me were scary and intimidating. They’d gone places I hadn’t and seen things I’d missed and likely in the process become creatures with which one couldn’t successfully interact. Now though, years later, now that teenagers look like young people not old people anymore, I’ve realized that some of my most cherished and valued friendships are the ones I’ve built with people who are older.
My best friend in college, Carl, was two and a half years older than me – and because of that when I first met him I instantaneously put him in the category of mentor. I remember writing him a letter in November of my freshman year about what a tremendous role model he was to me and he responded warmly and graciously but also by telling me, “You know, I don’t need to be a role model to you, we can just be friends.”
In that interaction I realized that having older friends did not mean that one is the bearer of wisdom and one is the happy student – it meant we cared for each other and advised each other the way you would in any other relationship. Older friends aren’t placing themselves on a pedestal and inviting you, willing pupil, to sit at their feet and listen – older friends are regular friends with a little additional wisdom.
One of my particularly wise older friends I met last year, when straight out of college I taught at a high school and found myself with co-workers mostly much older than I. My closest friend became a woman named Jenny who was 34 with two children, a deep love of dancing, and a wicked sense of humor. Meeting her, I instantly reverted to my younger selves’ habit of being awed by an older, funnier person – but she broke through all that pretty quick. Jenny treated me with kindness and grace, but, like Carl before her, she didn’t treat me like the doe-eyed recent college grad I was, but like an equal.
However, though she treated me with the kindness and friendliness with which she treated everyone else, there was something special about my friendship with this older friend because she could teach me a whole lot. While in my mind marriage and children and full-blown careers were all hypotheticals still years away from being realized, Jenny was able to speak to me about them frankly, honestly, with great love and joy, and great perseverance and wit. After we went to the graduation ceremony for last year’s seniors, I remember her driving me home and talking to me about her family and the people in her life, their struggles, hopes, and dreams. She talked to me like an equal, but she also talked to me about things that my twenty-something peers could never do. She wasn’t my mom or my dad, an aunt or an uncle – she was a friend, but a friend with wisdom and experiences I hadn’t had but could learn through.
I’ll admit, it is still sometimes hard for me to walk into a room of people who are older and to and instantly assume we’re going to be close – I get nervous that they won’t understand my deep love of the show Unreal, or I’ll embarrass myself by how much I love creeping on Instagram. But in the friendships I’ve had with older people, I’ve realized that they’re not as scary or unlikely as you might think, and when you have them they’re chock-full of wisdom you never thought of, either.