It was my privilege last week to assist at a writing camp for Middle School kids all last week at the Hillary R. Clinton Children's Library. While I don't have much experience with this age group off of the baseball field, I thought that it would be an interesting experience and a friend that works for the non-profit social justice organization that ran it somehow thought I would be good for them.
While the camp was indeed about writing, it was also about using writing to understand differences (and similarities) among the participants. Writing was just a vehicle for expression of feelings. There was very little correcting going on by the facilitators (although I did some) and indeed the kids were encouraged to little 'er rip without regard to potential grading or other type of criticism.
I guess we had about 30 kids there. They were mostly girls but the group, as a whole, was from all walks of life. I was by far the oldest person in the room. The leader, an honest to God teacher, is in her thirties. The other two facilitators couldn't have been out of their twenties although I may be wrong about that. But there was no mistaking that the guy with the grey beard was the senior member of the team. We all wore name tags. Mine said "Paul."
Something interesting happened early on. An African American kid referred to me as "Mr. Paul." The group was then informed that I was to be addressed as "Paul."
I suppose I get what the leader was trying to accomplish. Perhaps she thought that I would be offended by bring referred to in this fashion. Perhaps, this being a camp where inclusiveness was exalted, the leader hoped to cull any age-based distinction or difference influenced distinctions out of their little brains. After all, to name something is to acquire power over it as the old saying goes. And, we all know that names can become labels. And one of the purposes of the camp was to do away with labels and was about treating people as they really are as individuals without regard to race, sex, sexual orientation, age and so forth.
I appreciate all that. But I was not offended in the slightest. After all, anybody could tell by but a cursory glance that I was the oldest person in the room. And by a considerable margin.
Truth of the matter is, I kinda like being Mr. Paul. While I really don't consider myself to be "old" I can't deny that I am no longer a kid. Indeed, I am referred to in that fashion by half the kids in the neighborhood. Hell, the Straessle kids call me that and they are practically my own flesh and blood. Well, the 6 year old doesn't. But she's so cute I don't much care. Also, that's what the kids at Miracle League call me.
I'm also referred to as "Mr. Paul" by most, if not all, younger African-American folks. That's what my colleague Jason at the office calls me. A lot of my clients referred to me in that way. Even if they were older than me.
I like to think of it as a Southern thing mostly. An intimate mode of respectful address. So it doesn't bother me at all. Truth of the matter is, I kinda worked hard at earning that respect and I am OK with sometimes being the oldest person in the room. Because I'm secure in the knowledge that I am pretty young for my age and that I am better shape than a man ten years younger. At this stage my age really is mostly a number. So far so good.
That night, I sent an email to the leader telling her that I didn't care how the kids addressed me, just so long as they talked to me. And for the rest of the week I was either "Paul" or "Mister Paul." By the end of the week the leader was even calling me "MP."
Like I said, I understand the leader's concerns. Perhaps she thought such language to be overly paternalistic in a certain sense. Lord knows that was the Southern experience in white folks calling African-American slaves and/or hired help "Auntie" or "Uncle." Perhaps it was a combined teachable moment and expression of consideration of me.
While it is always the better practice to err on the side of consideration for others, sometimes it can be misplaced even with the best of intentions. As was perhaps the case here with me.
Friday morning I sang the National Anthem in Court for a Naturalization Ceremony before heading over to the camp. I noticed one of my high school teachers across the courtroom sitting with the other ladies with the Daughters of the American Revolution. We hugged after the ceremony. She asked me what I was up to and I told her about the writing camp. I also told her that while I was having a blast I wasn't quite used to Middle School kids.
"Nobody is used to Middle School kids,"she said." You will never get used to Middle School kids. You just ride it out. I wish I had a nickel for every time some parent called me at home to ask why her kid had 'changed' since the previous month. So really, your reaction is perfectly normal. You just have to ride it out."
I suppose that's true. All I know for sure is that after the creative writing camp was over, Mr. Paul, "the oldest person in the room," fell dead asleep in his easy chair around 9 o'clock that night.