Back To School For Benjamin Button

Here in Arizona, where nothing makes sense-not our weather nor our politics, nor the majority of our laws-we like to be consistent in our wackiness by starting school the first week of August. Yes, just as it hits 115 degrees, we saddle our kids up with book-filled backpacks, lunch boxes and school supplies and send them off to walk several blocks to begin a new year of learning. (Don’t worry: the kids still get recess. They get to go into a “cool room,” which is essentially another classroom with air conditioning.)

As I prepare my three children for their upcoming school year, I am overcome with the usual emotions: sadness that they are growing up, gleefulness that I am done entertaining them for the summer, and excitement for what this year will hold. But this year, I have found myself struggling with a surprising new emotion: jealousy.

I have found myself jealous of their numerous opportunities to learn. I am incredibly envious of the novels they are reading for language arts, the countries they are going to learn about in social studies, and the wars and political topics that they will study in history. (Though I am not, in any way, shape or form, the least bit jealous of anything they will learn having to do with math.)

I was always fascinated by the concept presented in the movie (and short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald) “The Curious Life of Benjamin Button” and also depicted in the novel, ” The Confessions of Max Tivoli” by Andrew Sean Greer. In both of these stories, a man is born old (appearing on the outside as a wrinkly old man) and grows younger and more handsome as he becomes older. His thoughts and ideas get more inspired as he gets older, instead of the usual notion that people grow more jaded and less enthusiastic about life as they head into adulthood.

I believe that I am experiencing a curious life myself. When I grew up, I didn’t really enjoy learning. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the social aspects of being at school-especially in high school and college, but I was never interested in most of what I was being taught. The majority of the information was so foreign to me: why did I need to learn about ancient battles fought thousands of years ago? Who cares about the geological structure of the Earth? What does the study of genetics have to do with me?

As I grew older, I earned various degrees and tried out numerous careers. I earned an undergraduate degree in teaching and a juris doctorate from law school. I taught school and I practiced law (in two different states.) I owned a stationery company and volunteered with charitable organizations. I worked in retail and at waitressed at restaurants. I tried my hand at theatre and dance. I even started a non-profit organization of my own.

Through each chapter of my life, I learned a little bit about myself. I figured out what interests me and what does not. I read the newspaper every day, and figured out which sections were my favorite. And now, at the age of 43, I want to learn it all.

I want to know all about the history of the Middle East so that I can understand what I see happening there today. I am fascinated by the political process, and want to learn how the upcoming presidential election has been shaped by all of our previous elections. I love reading books, especially historical fiction (give me a novel about the life of Anne Boleyn and I will disappear for days.) I need to understand the science of genetics and the human body so that I am fully informed about today’s potential health issues. I want to know about global warming, geological discoveries and the latest technological and scientific breakthroughs.

None of this interested me when I was 12, or 15 or 21. And really, that’s o.k. My peers and I had not had any of the life experiences at that point to understand why these subjects really mattered to our own lives. We had no context to know that the history, science and geography of our world would one day become essential knowledge when we became adults. We had no way of knowing that reading books like “Jane Eyre” or “The Great Gatsby” would be vitally important to a better understanding of the popular culture of today.

My least favorite class in high school was typing. “Why,” I complained to my parents, “do I need to learn how to properly place my hands on a keyboard? What good will ever come of having speed-typing skills?” How could I or anyone have known in 1989 that our entire lives in the year 2015 would depend on the knowledge of correct keyboard finger placement?

After all of these years of trying out various jobs and careers, I have finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a writer. There is so much to learn. I am taking classes to learn about editing and publishing, and of the important of a three act story structure (a captivating beginning, a riveting middle, and an exciting, yet satisfying, conclusion.)

Looking back, I realize now that my most fulfilling moments in school involved me having to write some sort of an assigned essay. I did enjoy my creative writing classes, a lot. Talking about proper grammar makes me strangely excited. But I wouldn’t have known then that it would be my chosen field. I had way too much curiosity about and interest in exploring other career possibilities. It was important for me to try them all out. I needed to sample each one of them to ultimately figure out my real and true passion. (This is also how I feel about dating, but that’s a whole different topic.)

Just like Benjamin Button and Max Tivoli, I needed to grow older to get more passionate about life. As I have aged on the outside, I have grown younger and younger on the inside. I am so much more excited about life now, that the end is nearing, than I was when I had so many years ahead of me.

So, yeah, I’m jealous of my kids as they head back to school. But I won’t tell them that today, because it won’t make any sense. Instead, I’ll sit by them as they read about World War II and the Holocaust and tell them how interesting it is to me. They, in turn, will roll their eyes at me and tell me how boring it is, just as I told my own parents when I was their age.

Maybe I’ll learn by reading their books over their shoulders or helping them study for tests. As they memorize how to spell or read words that they don’t think they will ever use in “real life,” I’ll tuck that knowledge away for the next time I sit down to write.

Just like the stories about Benjamin Button and Max Tivoli tell us, there’s nothing we can do to stop a person from aging backwards. But, if it turns out that we ourselves are one of the lucky people suffering from this mysterious condition, we should try to make the most of our lives. Instead of hiding ourselves from the world, we need to embrace who we are. We must openly and honestly celebrate this newfound enthusiasm for life.

After all, there’s no telling when our own life story will end. As I have learned, the best we can do is keep the reader interested until the very last page.

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