Monday, October 18, 2010

Age as an Ascribed Status

I recently turned 18, and as expected, I was surprised to feel no different. Ha. Legally, this obviously has ramifications for definitions of adulthood. For instance, I can technically make decisions now (sign contracts), and I'm legally responsible for my own actions. But socially speaking, the "literal" age is mostly irrelevant.

What is relevant is the related, though not mutually assured, facts of no longer being in High School, and now being in College. The first observation about this transition that I have had was expected: at College, I'm an adult like the professors, if not a young one. It's a simple but welcome change in teacher/professor to student relations. However, what really brought the transition to the foreground of my mind was my experiences visiting my old High School.

Apparently, they changed the policy, and now former students are not allowed to go into the school to visit their former teachers during school hours. Now, my former teachers weren't aware of this subtle change, and neither was one of the two main desk secretaries I interacted with today. The resulting scenario was enlightening.

In my interactions with the front desk people, and one security guard outside, and then emailing the principal later, I noticed that they all treated me still as a student, or at least as a younger nonequal. I even have physical evidence in my email, as in the subject I referred to what I was trying to do as "Alumni Visiting Teachers," but he responded with "Students visiting teachers..." It's true that I'm technically still a student, as a college student, but as a High School Principal, that's obviously not the main way he thinks of recent graduates like myself.

I came back after school hours, and I was shown the opposite treatment from my former teachers. I was still a former student visiting, as in my interactions with the administrative staff, but my former teachers all treated me much more as an equal. Which is something they did while I was a student to some extent, especially in comparison to the administrative staff, but now it's as an adult equal, or at least a more adult equal, as opposed to a student equal. The differences are small, but they're things like a first name basis. I'm not technically on a first name basis any of my former teachers, but it would be socially acceptable for me to do that now, if I elected and the teachers didn't mind. Another thing I noticed was when my old math teacher suggested I call him and to have lunch sometime when I'm in town again. These things would be inappropriate were I still a student, and not without good reason, but now if I were to meet a teacher for a meal somewhere, it'd be two adults hanging out.

I just think it's interesting that I'm treated differently by different people based on what context they assume we are in, or what they want to the context to be. For example, if the security guard wants to exert authority, he'll talk to me like I am a student (in a way he specifically wouldn't get away with if I were an adult, like a parent), actively contextualizing me into that status so that he can get the outcome he wants. And I'd respond, of course, since I'm used to being treated that way, and am not surprised by that treatment the way a parent would. On the other hand, my former teachers now want to treat me as an adult, which could be their way of still helping me mature into an adult. Now that they aren't strictly mentors as my teachers, they can help me ease into adulthood by treating me like one.

The most interesting implication is, of course, that if no adults were to ever treat me like one, I would still be socially defined as a teenager/student/youth, or what have you. Being an adult is more than just surviving long enough or reaching a certain emotional maturity. It's also being accepted and defined as an adult by other adults.

So that will be fun to observe for the next few years.