Editor Column – Walking Away from a Stigma

I turned 20 over winter break. Nothing actually feels any different, but it’s almost incomprehensible to me that I’m not a teenager anymore. Can I no longer be angsty or watch silly TV shows? Am I supposed to instantly be more responsible and considerate? Is 20 the point where I’m supposed to stop looking forward to growing up and start dreading getting older? I’ve crossed the line into the twentysomethings. Do I have to start hating each birthday, because it brings me closer to 30? I just don’t feel like I’m there yet. I still feel more like a character in a high school drama than a newlywed comedy.

I guess it’s like anything else: when you don’t see someone for a while, her gradual changes are quite apparent to you, but when you’re there each day, it feels like nothing has changed at all. We spend every minute of every day with ourselves; it seems like time has stood still. I have as much trouble believing that I’m 20 as my sister does — though she probably estimates that I’m around nine. In my mind, I’ve worked my way up to at least 15.

I think part of the problem in my perception is that strangers still assume that I am a teenager, and make assumptions about teenagers themselves that they apply to me. If I go out to dinner with a group of friends, it’s fairly likely that the service won’t be great — they assume a bunch of teenagers won’t tip big.

Or walking into a store, a sales assistant may be overly helpful in an attempt to discourage another teenage theft. I also always loved, when I was cashier, to have customers demand to see my manager when I told them something they didn’t like, as if I hadn’t practically excerpted a sentence from a rulebook in my explanation. No, an adult would tell them what they wanted to hear.

Maybe being 20 doesn’t feel like a huge change because I’ve felt more mature for a while now than the rules set in place to keep crazy teenagers like me from accidentally blowing something up. I’m not trying to imply that I was a superior teenager, just that the label of teenager comes with a lot of baggage and, believe it or not, we don’t all fit so nicely into the predetermined description. Of all the factors that decide who will be stingy, or a shoplifter, or incompetent at her job, or any of a million other things, age is incredibly far down the list in importance. Upbringing, personality, ability — those things seem just a bit more significant than the age that person happens to be.

So maybe 20 sounds so strange because of its connotation. To the outside world, it means I’ve passed out of that evil, awkward middling stage pronounced “teenage” with an involuntary shudder. With the announcement of turning 20, I can become human in the eyes of the world. And I just can’t help but frown a little, because I could have sworn I was human at 19 as well.