Much as I would like to believe otherwise, age is not just a number. Age begets experience and experience begets knowledge, wisdom and other assets that lend weight to your opinions and imbue your words with power. Being the youngest at the table threatens to detract from your credibility and relegate you to the sidelines.
In school, I enjoyed spearheading class discussions, taking the lead during group projects and debating passionately in academic conferences. Granted, I am vocal and forthright by nature. But in hindsight, this courage I derived in no small measure from the confidence of being well-versed in the subject matter and the comfort of being surrounded by peers.
Working alongside graduate students, professors, colleagues, superiors and external consultants during my research attachment and biotechnology internship thrust upon me the challenge of making myself heard and noticed (for the right reasons) in a room dominated by adults. Though no less eager to contribute something valuable to the conversation, I was more preoccupied with trying to keep abreast of the constant deluge of new information. Technical discussions left me particularly bereft of words, the profound understanding of abstruse scientific concepts demanded well beyond my present capabilities to acquire.
I often found myself cowering before the specter of humiliation– of throwing my inexperience and ignorance into sharp relief through ill-advised remarks and irrelevant questions. There were instances when the exhilaration of being struck by sudden insight sent an avalanche of words catapulting to the tip of my tongue. But fear often got in the way. It adamantly refused to let them slip through heavily-guarded lips and ruthlessly stamped out every last ember of what could potentially have been decent ideas before they had a chance to see the light of day.
When I finally mustered the nerve to speak up, tepid or critical remarks would drive me back into my shell, defeated and disheartened. It was difficult not to feel like an underage intruder in a 21-and-over club in the face of cold rejection or even blatant disregard.
The loneliness of my predicament only exacerbated these struggles. No matter how amiably I got along with my coworkers and research partners, our relationships lacked the camaraderie and solidarity only shared experiences and sentiments could engender. Our age difference also yielded generational variations in beliefs, values, cultural interests and parlance that were almost impossible to fully transcend.
Fortunately, I have come to discover, appreciate and embrace the copious benefits of my youth. Inane remarks and irrelevant questions do incite contention but nothing beyond impersonal fact-based rebuttals that are hardly, if ever, tinged with contempt. Repercussions, albeit still ineluctably ensuing from my constant blunders, are often modulated by leniency. The frustration of being limited in ability and power is palpable, but the satisfaction that ensues from occasionally punching above my weight even more so.
Though my longing for peer companionship abides, sustained by the onslaught of social media updates from friends who have embarked on their college journeys, I am starting to relish my interactions with adults who temper my juvenile disposition with their imparted wisdom. To be constantly surrounded by mentors and role models, each espousing certain virtues and upholding certain work ethics that I aspire towards, is a privilege I should and will strive to avail myself of.
If age is not merely a number, I will certainly treasure my adolescence and the concomitant freedom to err, learn and grow with nothing to lose, before the inexorable march of time thrusts the burden of adulthood upon me.