That isn’t me in the photo, though it could be.
A bald man in vaguely sportif clothing trying to take an arty photo of the Serpentine Gallery installation (2012) and look young at the same time.
It can’t be done.
When did I first notice that feeling? If I am honest, about ten years ago. Maybe longer. Let’s be generous. Ten. Which would make me 45. Ish. Give or take.
Let’s get a bit more honest now. Fifteen years ago, as I approached 40.
It works like this. You are sitting on a bus or a train, or walking down the road, and you look up at the person who is sitting across from you, or wants the seat next to you, or is approaching you
not because you want anything from them, but just to show you are another human being who is in the same space as them,
and, young or old, male or female,
they look right through you.
These days, of course, there is an excuse. People are glued to their (head) phones.
In the pre-smart phone era (hands up who remembers that?) there was just
looking away or looking through.
Actually, looking away actually isn’t it. It is through. I am looked-through. I am invisible. I have become invisible.
I’m not a threat, I’m not a threat, I am not a threat to you I mutter silently as the person sits down or approaches on the street.
But what I am is old.
Maybe this is not the right explanation. Maybe we are all so lost in our own little (phone) worlds that no one looks up at anyone any more. I don’t know.
I talked about it with a friend at work and he said he had actually come out the other side of it. After years of being looked through he now gets kindly looks from old and young alike at bus stops, near stairs and on streets because he has got to the stage (his words) where the lack of threat is even more visible. ‘Basically I look really ancient now. And that makes people look at me kindly.’
I’ve had it in other ways as well. There I was, still thinking (I thought, just with a bit more knowledge and experience, a few more health scares and disappointments under my belt) like I did when I was seventeen, talking about creativity to a large group of students.
And to show that I could improvise and depart from the PowerPoint (it was a creativity lecture, after all) I began a tiny wee riff about Joni Mitchell, mentioning a recent programme I had heard about her on the radio.
One hand went up in recognition. In a hall of about a hundred.
Maybe they lost me at ‘radio’. They definitely lost me at ‘Blue‘.
Never again, I told myself. Stick to the script.
But it happened again the other day again, in another lecture to some even younger people.
I was trying to get a discussion going about how teachers are portrayed in films: as messiahs (Freedom Writers, Dead Poets Society), or geniuses (Good Will Hunting), or wizards (Harry Potter), or outcasts/needing rescuing (Educating Rita, Full Nelson). These are mainstream films, I thought to myself, as I put the slides together. I won’t need to put the titles below the pictures. Everyone knows that image of Robin Williams standing on the desks, don’t they? (‘Captain! My Captain!).
You could have heard the proverbial.
They loved the picture of the wizard.
But not before they had to help me remember the words for ‘Professor McGonagall’. My very own brain-fade, right there in public. A voice in my head said ‘Do your homework, Wilson!’ The thing is, I had. Some things you cannot prepare for.
Like feeling old.
It was too late already.
The bus-feeling came over me again, my top lip sweaty, still with half the lecture to go, as I stood there, spouting, asking questions, giving it everything, actually educating, feeling ancient and sounding worse, the whole room looking right through me.