“I would have been to school on time,” says a student, “But I was stuck behind this old guy who was driving five miles an hour.” The other students groan in solidarity.
Some background: each day, I lead a morning discussion group. We light a candle, set some intentions, offer thanks for whatever we’re thankful for (be it family and freedom or caffeine and cars), and we talk.
Nearly always, the students are thoughtful. They reflect on challenges in their life, vent about their failures, and laugh about whatever has happened to them on the way to school.
I try to allow this space to be as unmoderated as possible, and 98% of the time, it’s perfect.
Sometimes, however, a student will begin to talk about the people they encounter in day to day life, and a detail creeps into the story that makes me uncomfortable. The disruptive pack of teens on the subway ride to school was this race, or the guy who was creepily standing in the Starbucks parking lot was that race.
I won’t pretend that racism, sexism, and homophobia are expunged from my school. Despite our aggressive policies, protecting the rights and equality of all students and faculty, I have heard hurtful words, passing in the hall, and I have intervened – with unclear results. But at least the notion of being identified as racist or sexist or homophobic would be upsetting to any student. So, at least we have a consensus about that.
In that situation, I can inquire about the students’ intention about bringing race (or gender) into the story.
We can talk about the ways people sometimes include these details as ways of “augmenting the antagonism” of the story – even if they don’t realize it.
We can talk about intention versus effect, and the need to speak in ways that aren’t hurtful to people in the room, and ways that don’t perpetuate negative images of people not in the room, as well.
I have some tools and vocabulary for this.
But what do you do when a story, intended to convey a bit of humor, positions an an elderly person as the antagonist?
What’s My Concern?
Agism is real. As people reach old age, many are faced with increasing challenges, equipped with decreasing resources. Meanwhile, many old people describe feeling that the rest of society “doesn’t give a damn about them.” Old people are marginalized and devalued as feeble, dense, and powerless. And if you don’t believe me, picture this: an improv-comedy troupe is on stage, asking the audience to shout out funny themes for recreating Star Wars.
(Now, visualize a spoof on Star Wars, recreated with an “Old People” theme, and you’ll get my point).
For better or worse, this “terrible, old driver” story comes up at least once a year. This gives me the opportunity to cringe, at least once a year – and possibly intervene, but until a few weeks ago, I wasn’t sure what to say. After all, there is a very real, and very tragic to the correlation of age and ability to drive. For some old people, vision problems and slower reflexes make driving more difficult.
I could stop the student, mid story, and say, “Hey. Look. I know this driver made you late for class, but the disabilities that can accompany aging aren’t funny.”
On a road trip, I heard a fantastic stand-up comedy routine by John Mulaney. In the routine, he talks about being a terrible driver.
“You don’t like that I’m in that lane, I don’t like that I’m in that lane either. And I sure would like to get out of it. People drive by and turn to look and expect to see a 90 year old dog, drinking a smoothie and texting while driving. Imagine, they turn and see a 29 year old, healthy man who’s trying his best.”
My travel companion and I talked about this clip and about the infamous “old driver complaining story” – it gave me an idea.
Lo and behold, not long after, the story came up in my morning discussion group. A student was zooming to school, nearly on time, and got stuck behind “an old guy” going “about 5 miles an hour.” He was marked late at the school’s front desk and would be serving a detention.
After the groans of solidarity-through-annoyance died down, I pulled out my smartphone and mini-speaker and we listened to John Mullaney’s bit. Everyone loved it.
Afterward, I said, “The thing about old people is that many of them find that, after a long life of being great drivers, they are now dealing with vision problems, reflex problems, challenges with their hands and feet, and they’re not happy about it. You know how John Mullaney said, “You don’t like how I’m driving? I don’t like it either?”
“Well, I would bet that if you asked the guy who was holding you up through his slow driving how he feels about his vision or reflex problems, he’d say that he doesn’t like how he drives now, either.”
We talked for a while about the pros and cons of senior citizens having access to driving, and many students related stories of their own grandparents and their challenges, navigating driving, walking, even cooking and cleaning.
Did these students transform into compassionate, thoughtful activists to stamp out ageism? No.
But we added a human element to the story. The old drivers of the world are people struggling to get by, just as everyone has their struggles.
And humor broke the ice. It kept it from being preachy. It helped students to hear the message, and not to become immediately defensive.
And hey, I don’t like the fact that teenagers can sometimes be a little bit racist, a little bit homophobic, or a little bit ageist.
But guess what? They don’t like it either.