“How old are you?”
Why is it that every time I meet a new person, this is how we begin our conversation? This, the question that I dread the most? And yet, I’m guilty of it too: automatically asking whomever I meet how old they are or what grade they are in and then judging them by their answer, placing them into a category. For most people, it doesn’t matter. Usually, those are the ones who can proudly answer, “I’m seventeen; I’ll be eighteen next month,” with a toss of the head and a shake of the hip. Or they’re happy with their youth, their lack of responsibility and ability to enjoy themselves, whenever and wherever they are. I bet 99.9% of our young population doesn’t feel insulted by this question at all. We enjoy our youth, don’t we? Unfortunately, I’m part of the 0.01%. When I’m asked this question, I look down at the ground and say “Twelve,” or finally, after months of waiting, “Thirteen.” And yet, with every year, my answer to this question becomes no less satisfactory.
I am thirteen years old. It doesn’t seem like that, even to me, but it’s true. I’ve been a foot taller than everyone my age since I was eight years old, and about just as much more mature than them too. There’s a picture of me with three friends from dance class when I was eight years old. There are three little girls, all around the same height. You could probably draw a straight line across their heads. That line would come up to my shoulder. I’m a head taller than them; I look like a giant next to them. And yet, out of the four of us, I was the second youngest. I started going through puberty when I was eight; by the time I was ten, I was 5’4” and looked like I was thirteen.
It started before I can remember, when I was three years old. I looked across the room, where my mom was just beginning to homeschool my sister. I put down my toys and said, “Mommy, I want to do school too!” So, I started preschool at the ripe age of three. My growth spurts started soon after that. Academically and physically, I was far beyond my fellow toddlers. The social differences wouldn’t manifest until a few years later, when I was eight years old.
By the time I was eight, I was far more serious and focused than other girls my age; I had lost interest in their games and antics. For about a year, I just didn’t have any friends my age. I thought I did, but truthfully, I wasn’t connecting with them the way they were connecting to each other. I didn’t fully realize it until I was nine. My sister, three years my elder, was about to turn thirteen years old and begin her teenage years. One night, I was able to sit in on a homeschool teen Bunco night, and surprisingly, I had more fun than I had had with my “friends” in years. I was more able to connect with my sister’s friends, even though they were twelve and thirteen years old. My only problem then was figuring out how to explain a nine-year-old hanging out with a thirteen-year-old. Unfortunately, the barriers were not just made of stereotypes and social conventions.
I was eagerly awaiting the next Bunco night, when a few nights before, my mom told me that she didn’t think I would be able to go, since it was really supposed to be for sixth graders and up only. At the time, I was in fifth grade. The only reason I would ever be able to play was if they needed an extra player. When we went to drop my sister off, I waited, in agony, counting the number of people who walked through the door. Finally, everyone had arrived, they didn’t need another player, and my mom and I went home. Every month, I went through the same ordeal, hoping that one day I would be lucky and they would fall one short. But alas, it was not meant to be, and every time I went home dejected, disappointed once more. I think that one night I cried.
Soon, it wasn’t only Bunco night that was sixth grade and up; it was also drama club. I stayed home the first two rehearsals, but the third time I went and spent the time helping to build the set. I started going every week, sticking with my mom in the back. Still, I was finally part of something. In the drama club, my sister and I met a girl named Kenzie. Before long, she and my sister were texting all day long. Then one night, Kenzie asked my sister for my number. I couldn’t believe it. A thirteen-year-old wanted to talk to me? When her birthday rolled around, Kenzie was the first person to invite Aszkara and me to a sleepover, not just Aszkara. In drama club, she would call me over to be a part of the group. What Kenzie did for me was not only to make me feel included, but also to make me feel that I could and should be included, and realize that age was no barrier in a friendship. Fortunately, Kenzie’s mom was the drama club leader and before long, I had “accidentally” been listed in the drama club program as a backstage hand. I was officially part of the drama club, and by the time sixth grade and up game night came along, I was known as the exception. A few months later, I finally started sixth grade and officially became a participant in Bunco night.
Still, girls in the drama club would ask me what I was doing there, or they would tell me “My little sister is your age. You should go play with her on the playground!” I would politely shrug and ignore them. I had a close group of friends, including Kenzie, all of whom accepted me for who I was, regardless of my age. Then, just when I had overcome the barrier, we moved to Florida. Now, there was a new group of teenagers I had to be accepted into. I had my tenth birthday, two months after my sister and many of my friends had their thirteenths. I was finally in sixth grade, but now my sister was a year away from high school. Every time I reached another milestone, the bar was just raised even higher. Lo and behold, when we got to Florida, the age was no longer sixth grade and up. It was thirteen and up. I was three whole years too young.
At first, I tried the almost trick. “How old are you?” “Almost eleven.” “So you’re ten?” “Yes.” “When do you turn eleven?” “In June.” “So, eight months from now?” In short, it didn’t work. Everyone immediately knew how old I was. Some of them reacted with surprise the first time they found out, shrugged, and treated me no differently than they would have otherwise. Others raised their eyebrows and immediately pointed in the direction of the playground. Many of them weren’t trying to be mean; they genuinely thought that they were being kind. They all assumed that I wanted to play with kids my age. Often, though, I found that the people who couldn’t accept me regardless of my age were not worth being friends with.
Shortly after we arrived in Florida, my mom and several others formed a teen group within the homeschool group we joined. A “teen group,” some thought, meant that only those who were teenagers could attend, excluding siblings. Fortunately, my mom became one of the leaders and the primary organizer of the group, allowing me to become the exception. Still, there was one sixteen-year-old, named Ian, who was less than happy that a ten-year-old was hanging out with his friends. He would say things like “If you’re under thirteen, you can’t be part of this conversation,” or “What are you doing here? This is for the older kids.” Ian would shoot down anything I suggested, laughing patronizingly and saying, “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard!” That didn’t insult me much, honestly, because I knew that he was just an insecure, egocentric teenager who didn’t like that I was six years younger than him and just as mature as he was. Still, I can’t say it wasn’t at all hurtful, and, in the end, it caused much more confusion that I anticipated.
Homeschool prom was being planned for May 20th, 2011. Early on, my mom asked if I could come, despite the fact that the dance was supposed to be thirteen and up. When we received an affirmative answer, my sister and I, along with the other teenagers, brought dresses, sold tickets, and anticipated the night for nearly three months. Then, a week before the prom, the leaders of the group called a meeting, inviting my mom and several others. Ian’s mother spent the entire meeting attacking my mom for, among other things, violating the rules about appropriate ages at the prom and other teen events. My age became the basis for one of the most convoluted homeschool dramas we have ever been a part of. In the end, we left the group, accompanied by those who had proven themselves our true friends. Yet, it had hurt to discover how many of my “friends” truly weren’t my friends at all. According to Ian and his mom, they had only tolerated me.
Yet, shortly after these incidents, just the opposite occurred when I went to a Disney water park for my eleventh birthday. I went to the twelve and under section of the park, eager to ride the zip-line, only to be told that I was too old to go on those attractions. When I insisted that I had in fact just turned eleven, the lifeguard accused me of lying and refused to let me go on the ride. My mom asserted that I was telling the truth, but then the lifeguard said that I was too tall for the attraction, regardless of my age. What irony! I was allowed in neither category: thirteen and up nor twelve and under.
In the aftermath of the prom debacle, I made a decision that drastically altered my age problem forever. It was my birthday, and I was turning eleven. It was barely any improvement over ten. It felt like no difference at all! In fact, I had already been telling people that I was “basically eleven” (slightly better than the almost trick). I was going into seventh grade, which seemed better than sixth grade until I realized that my sister and all our friends were entering ninth grade. I wanted more than anything else to be entering ninth grade like they were. I pouted about my bad fortune, realizing that, no matter what I did, things would never change. By the time I turned thirteen, everyone else would be sixteen or seventeen. By the time I turned sixteen, everyone else would be nineteen or twenty. By the time I started high school, everyone else would be graduating. There was nothing I could do to change that. Then I realized that I could change that. My age was fixed, yes, but my grade wasn’t. Being a grade ahead had already saved me so much grief; it had allowed me to get into the middle school category a year earlier than I would have otherwise. What if I could do the same thing with high school? I knew that there was no way for me to get into high school that year; I still had two grades to go. But what if I could enter ninth grade the following year? I did the math and figured that if I did seventh and eighth grade over the next year, I would enter high school at the age of twelve. At the time, I was a month or two away from finishing sixth grade. Yet, I was determined to enter high school in a little over a year’s time. If I succeeded, I would be able to say, “I’m twelve and I’m in ninth grade,” when people asked me how old I was. How would they be able to hold it against me then?
Whenever I told someone that I was going to do two grades in one year, it did seem crazy, even to me. Yet, I did it. I began the seventh grade curriculum in September 2011. I finished eighth grade thirteen months later, in October 2012. I started ninth grade that same month. In the curriculum I was using, each grade was designed to take ten months. I did twenty months of work in thirteen. For the entire year, I did schoolwork all day everyday, not stopping for holidays or summer. I did schoolwork in the car to and from activities or days spent with friends, even on the drive up to Disney World and on the airplane to New York City. Sometimes it did seem like it was impossible, but there soon was another reason that I couldn’t stop. That year, I joined a choir and discovered a new passion: singing. I was in the middle school division at the time, but the high school choir was much better, and I wanted to be in it. In May 2012, I auditioned as a rising ninth grader. After that, I couldn’t go back.
The first time I was able to say, “I’m twelve and I’m in ninth grade,” I felt proud. My age was no longer a handicap; it was an advantage. I no longer dreaded the “how old are you” question; sometimes I even looked forward to it. Now, I’m thirteen and in tenth grade, about to be fourteen and in eleventh grade. When I say my age and grade now, people no longer point in the direction of the playground. Instead, they say “Wow! You must be really smart.” I usually just shrug awkwardly, but what I should say is, “No, I’m just really committed.” I saw what I needed to do and I did it. In the process, I learned that nothing is truly impossible.
Today, I flush with pride whenever someone thinks I’m seventeen or even nineteen, or when they assume that I am the older sister, not the younger one. Yet despite everything I’ve overcome, I know my age will continue to cause problems for me for years to come. I still pout whenever my birthday comes along, and each year continues to seem like barely any improvement. When I turned thirteen last year, I wanted to pull my hair out every time someone said, “Oh, you’re finally a teenager!” I had felt like a teenager for over three years. I still cringe whenever someone who seems so much younger than me, and much less mature, turns out to be older than me. Trying to volunteer has been excruciating, since you have to be sixteen to volunteer at nearly every organization. Nearly all my friends have their driving licenses or learning permits. I’ve wanted to drive since I was twelve, but I still have two years to wait. By the time I can drive, everyone else will be able to vote. By the time I can vote, everyone else will be twenty-one and legally allowed to drink. I’m going to go to college when I’m only sixteen years old. It won’t be easy, getting people to accept such a young person as their equal. When I get my degree, I’ll only be nineteen, almost twenty. This won’t be over, I know, until I’m twenty-one, seven years from now.
What my experiences have taught me is that age is just another label. My best friend today is nineteen, a freshman in college. Age means nothing to us; we’re just as good friends as we would be if we were the same age. I say to this to every person, young and old: age doesn’t define maturity. It’s so easy to judge someone by how old they are. We all do it, even me sometimes. Don’t do it. Every person is unique. Every person matures at a different rate. Sticking a label on a person, whether it’s young or old, thirteen or sixteen, middle schooler or high schooler, is one of the cruelest things you can do. It limits individuality and denies a person the opportunity to be who he or she truly is. Judge someone by character, and nothing else.
Today, I marvel at how far I’ve come, of who I’ve become, and at how young I still am. I am only thirteen years old. Who knows what lies ahead of me? I often look back to the days when I wasn’t sure if I could fit in with people older than me, and I am amazed by how my experiences have shaped the person I am today. Sometimes, I close my eyes, and the milestones of my life replay in my head, as vivid as if they happened yesterday. I am three years old, and I read my very first sentence, a year ahead of my counterparts. I am eight, and I tower over my friends, fitting in neither physically nor socially. I have just turned ten, and I sit down to Bunco, officially a middle-schooler. I am twelve, I’m starting high school, and for the first time I say my age proudly. Now my mind flashes forward, imagining what the future will bring. I am fifteen, and I am driving for the first time, my hands gripping the wheel. I am sixteen, I am in college, and I try not to look hurt when someone stops being friendly to me when they find out how old I am. I am eighteen, legally an adult, and I can finally vote. I am twenty-one, and it is over. I look back on all these days, and I smile.
Narrelle is a homeschooled teen from West Palm Beach, Florida. In addition to writing, she enjoys singing in a choir and playing piano, and loves literature, politics, history, astronomy, and physics.