“Today is the oldest you’ve ever been, and the youngest you’ll ever be again.”
This piece of wisdom from Eleanor Roosevelt has been on my mind a lot lately. At the start of summer, I watched a class of seven-year-olds for a month. I was their after-school teacher, spending several hours with them every day. I quickly became familiar with their habits and quirks: they don’t understand multiplication, obsess over TikTok, readily accept popsicle bribes and are “dating” someone new every day. During playtime, they swing their tiny bodies across the monkey bars, racing like winning is the most important thing in the world.
I saw traces of my younger self in one girl’s bossy attitude and in another boy’s fearlessness climbing up a tree. As I watched them, I would flashback to a younger version of myself rocking a head of messy blond hair, loyally following wherever my curious mind led me.
I picture a much younger me — Little Nat — in her stroller, staring at the big kids walking by. Little Nat was constantly in awe of the big kids. They would strut by, tall and full of confidence, headed to important events. She so badly wanted to be them.
Skip ahead a few more years, Little Nat remained obsessed with the big kids. In elementary school, she was impatient to be a middle schooler already. The middle schoolers’ lives seemed so much better; they each had about a million friends and wore cool clothes. Little Nat wanted what they had.
Once Little Nat found herself in middle school, she realized it was seriously not all she hyped it up to be. In fact, it sucked. She was awkward in every aspect of life. Physically, she hadn’t yet grown into her body. She was extremely self-conscious, in constant comparison mode. Emotionally, friendships were full of drama and she was tired of the complexity of being a pre-teen girl. She dreamt of being older.
Little Nat was finally a high schooler! It was an exciting time; the beginning of figuring out who she wanted to be. At the same time, she couldn’t wait to leave. High school simply took middle school’s problems and exaggerated them. Friend dynamics stayed overly complicated and the addition of social media only further hurt her self-esteem. She ached to be older. With each year of high school, she felt more and more ready to be super far away — she couldn’t wait for college.
Introducing: college Nat — the one writing this piece. I feel the many versions of Little Nat inside me, like nesting dolls, building up to create the current me. I feel settled in the latest shell. I’ve grown up and into myself.
I’m most aware of how much I’ve grown when I was watching the kids after school. In them, I saw semblances of younger, more naive, clueless Nat. It made me feel really old, realizing how far I’ve come from their stage of life. These little kids helped me realize how much I have learned about the world and my place in it.
The kids would sprint up to me, heads full of endless questions that needed my answers. One day, I was asked: “Ms. Nat, where do babies come from? My mom won’t tell me.” I skimmed the surface with my answers. I did my best to explain in simplest terms, leaving room for their parents to explain the big concepts. After a brief explanation on my end, the questions kept flowing: “Ms. Nat, have you ever been pregnant? Do you have a baby? Why do some people not look like their parents? How do two girls have a baby?”
The next day, after a long discussion, I heard: “Ms. Nat, Eduardo said God isn’t real.”
The questions persisted. “What is five plus five? Is one billion a lot? Are we done with math yet?” “What does having a boyfriend even mean? Ewww, do you have to kiss them? But don’t boys have cooties? Why do people get married?” “Why do I have to keep my mask on? Will we have to do online classes again this year? Is COVID-19 going to be here forever?”
I laughed at the pure honesty of their questions. They didn’t even understand how inappropriate some of them would be if adults were asking them. They’re so refreshingly innocent, so openly curious, so unafraid to ask what’s truly on their minds.
To them, I have all the answers. To these little humans, I know everything.
I can’t believe there was ever a time when I was that small and innocent. I think of Little Nat — I zoom out and watch her grow up into the current me. In what feels like no time at all, I’ve become the big kid I used to aspire to be.
I feel so old.
But I also feel really young.
I recently met the sweetest 80-year-old couple, who live in a peaceful oasis of a house in Laguna Beach. Sitting with them over dinner, listening to their insane love story — which blossomed via letters sent back and forth while one was away in Vietnam — I realized I know very little.
I felt naive compared to them. I’m naive in my understanding of being a parent, grandparent or life partner. I can imagine what it might feel like but I don’t get it yet. I know nothing about the feeling of waking up next to someone every day for 50 years. Or to raise children together, watching as those children quickly grow into mothers and fathers. I know nothing about living during a time where all my friends are off fighting, at war, their return lingering in my mind as a maybe.
I feel as if I know nothing about life nor love nor time.
In the presence of this couple, I felt like a tiny child. I’ve lived barely a quarter of what these two people have lived. I recognized how much more life they’ve seen, how much they’ve grown over decades. I was humbled by their wisdom and life experience.
Talking with them, I was reminded how recently I was Little Nat. I’ve lived a mere 20 years — my life is just beginning. In their presence, I was able to see a sneak peek at my future life. It was new and exciting to realize I will be as old and wise as this couple one day. I saw hints of who I will grow up into.
They showed me a photograph of them when they were my age. I recognized remnants of the youthful glow in their eyes now; it reminded me they were once Little versions of themselves. Being so close to this couple for the night, I was able to actually picture what it might be like to be their age. I could imagine how my face will look once years of adventures build up wrinkles around my eyes.
I have a while to go before that, but there’s now a more concrete picture in my mind of what I could be like when I’m much older, a future Nat.
I was able to reflect on my past using the kids I watched as real-life models. Then, with this couple, I could see a tangible example of my future. Using these two vastly different ages, I can mark my age, my knowledge, my place in life.
Interacting and talking with groups of different ages has allowed me to reflect on my current age and place in life. It’s been helpful in my own self-realization process. I’m able to have real-life markers, helping me pinpoint where my past and future self fit. Comparing my place in life with these two age groups allows me to have some perspective. I can visualize the full arc of my timeline — where it started and where it’s headed.
I’m adding notches to the timeline of my life; examples of who I was and who I will be.
These markers are helping me pinpoint what stage I’m in right now. I can use the seven-year-olds and 80-year-olds as real-life comparisons to see where I fit in between. I realize I’m living in a strange duality: feeling naive and wise. Old and young. Little Nat and a big kid at the same time.
In these recent interactions, I’ve found a new appreciation for where I am in my life. It’s been fascinating to have this bird’s eye perspective of my place in life. It’s wild how much comparing your position in life to others can put everything in perspective.
I’ve spent so much of my life wishing to be older, and now I often wish to be younger. Always wishing to be in a different place than the present. Thinking back on Eleanor Roosevelt’s idea, I remember that today, I’m both the oldest and youngest I’ll ever be. Versions of Little Nat behind me and Big Nat ahead of me. Here I am, somewhere in the middle, figuring it all out.
I only recently feel like I’ve gotten in touch with myself, my feelings, my goals, who I want to be. This past year played a large role in that — helping me to finally sit with my thoughts and settle into myself. I’m curious what the rest of my timeline will look like, but I’m also trying to stay present. I don’t want to waste all my time trying to pinpoint my place in life just to look up and realize more time has already passed.
It’s difficult to walk this line, living in reflection but also in the present.
These timeline markers are aids in my continued process of introspection. Comparison can be a valuable tool in measuring our progress or future. I have so many years behind me and many, many more ahead of me. I don’t need to rush anything — soon enough, I will be looking at my current self and thinking how naive and young I was.
Right now, I feel content with my placement on my timeline. Right here, in the middle, I’m working on continuing to make who Little Nat was, and who big Nat will be, proud.
Statement Columnist Natalie Bricker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.