Don’t call me ‘sir’
I was born in July 1971. That’s what I tell people when they inquire about my age. It’d be easier to give them a number, but I prefer to watch their faces as they calculate, borrow from the decades column, and react. I teach at a community college in Sacramento, and when I inform curious students of my age, I receive all sorts of reactions:
— “Were there computers in the ‘70s?”
— “My mom’s 38. She has health problems. Do you have health problems, Mr. W?”
— “Really?” (Student leans forward and squints at my hair.) “Ahhh, now I see all the gray.”
— “Dude, when you were born, I didn’t exist, and I kept on not existing for nineteen years!”
As you can see, the responses share a singular theme: 38 is old, scary old—Heart-of-Darkness-horror old. Students view me as an AARP member, a broken hip waiting to happen.
They think—as I once did—that life ends right around one’s early thirties. I think of it as the Marilyn Monroe/James Dean complex. Most everyone burns the candle at both ends when they’re young. Beyond that, it’s just melted wax.
I understand the mindset. I used to think that way when I was their age. Some of my instructors in college were brittle, worn and colored by the elements. In comparison, the stuff they taught was pure energy. I read Dylan Thomas, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack Kerouac. Surely these young men’s lives reflected their art. They drank; they traveled; they drank and traveled. And they were dead by 39, 44 and 47, respectively. But they did not go quietly. I too was going to rage, rage against the dying of the light. I was sure of it. I wasn’t going to get old. I would live like Thomas, Fitzgerald and Kerouac, souls that never saw the far side of 50.
*** *** ***
I first started teaching about seven years ago, and even though I was married and had a kid, I still considered myself of the Kerouac ilk—never mind that I hadn’t had much to drink since my bachelor party and the strangest journey I’d embarked on in recent years involved a late-night trip to the store for diapers. I was still on the edge; I was still young. Heck, even my colleagues mistook me for a teenager. I’d be in the faculty lounge searching for dry erase markers, and a wiser, more tenured professors would walk in and think I was a student. “Young man, can I help you?” they would ask.
I brought my youthful persona to the classroom. I informed students that I abhorred the term “sir.” They could call me Professor W or David; that would be fine. Out of earshot, they could call me other names; that was fine, too. But I refused to be called “sir.” The term “sir” implied that my ripe existence commanded reverence. I didn’t need reverence, and I was not ripe, not in the least. When students would inadvertently call me sir, I would feign incredulity. “SIR? Clearly you aren’t speaking to the youthful guy who will determine your grade in a few weeks!” I joked. Students would roll their eyes; some would giggle. They all played along.
Today, however, a mere seven years later, I feel inundated with sirs. The phone rings: “Are you the head of the household, sir?” I go to the grocery store: “paper or plastic, sir.” A lost young man wanders into my office, confusion evident: “I’m lost; could you tell me how to get to the library, sir?” I stand up, stretch my slightly wiser, slightly more tenured legs, and help the young man find the library.
But those sirs are minor compared to the one I experienced at the doctor’s office not long ago. I went in for a general-duty check up. A young doctor filled in for my regular physician. As he walked in and sat down in the swivel chair, I decided that he was not a “sir.” He had short, dark hair and looked unraveled, in a scholarly sort of way. He was a “buddy” or “bro.” We’d be able to relate, I thought. No “sirs” in this conversation. The young doctor looked over my chart. Then he uttered a short phrase, a phrase that I considered “The-Mother-Of-All Sirs” or, in doctor parlance, the “Turn-Your-Head-and-Cough Sir.” He said, “You know, David, you’re not young anymore.” My blood pressure was up slightly. He wanted me to lose some weight, ease up on the salt and avoid processed foods.
Truth be told, I’m starting to accept my age, though I don’t consider myself old just yet. The young doctor needed a chart of systolics, diastolics and LDLs before age entered the conversation. My students don’t crack jokes about the Mesozoic era until after they see my gray hair. I’m beginning to realize that “sirs” are in my future, and that future involves my 40s, 50s and, hopefully beyond. Still, I don’t think I’m going to allow students to call me sir. If they do, I’m going to refer them to a young doctor. He may not use the term sir, but he has no compunction about asking some patients to turn their heads and cough.
David Weinshilboum is an English professor at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento. He realizes that 39 is just around the corner, but doesn’t really want to hear about it right now, OK? Contact him at email@example.com.