Day 25 – Higher Education, Peter Pan, and Body Dysmorphia – #100DaysofHigherEd

For most of my career, I have spent my days with lots and lots of people who are much younger, better looking, more fit, and decades younger. I truly live the life of Wooderson, the Matthew McConaughey character from the movie Dazed and Confused. “I get older, they stay the same age.” The fact is I have always worked with students who are between the ages of 18-25. It is part of the job. Here is the issue though. As I age and change, I find that my lifestyle has not. I still think I am the same age now that I was when I started in this career. And that is an unreasonable thing to considering that is not how human anatomy works.

When I started my career, I did a lot of things I physically cannot do now (and I likely should not have done then). One year I drove a van full of cheerleaders to a competition by driving for 18 hours straight with no breaks. I mentioned in a prior post about the hurricane shelter I ran. I stayed awake for nearly 80 hours during that time and was so tired I started hallucinating. And there were times when I tried to party with friends like I was 21 again and do athletic feats like lifting concert equipment or playing a pickup game of basketball with 19-year-olds as a 42-year-old man. Look, I know Brady and LeBron can do it, but I clearly cannot. In the past few years, I have categorized these into two categories for my students and used myself as a cautionary tale. Avoid the Peter Pan and Life Dysmorphia syndromes that can afflict all of us. Here is what they are.

The Peter Pan effect is an actual syndrome where the person refuses to grow up. Like the character in the J.M. Barrie play the person continually lives their lives as if they are 19 or 20. I find that there are many of us who feel this way. In many ways it makes sense. We are continually exposed to youth culture. We hear our students talk and we pick up the words they use, we watch their television shows, and listen to their music. Its not so much that we refuse to grow up its just we usually find ourselves connecting more with students than our friends in this area. I am often suggesting music and such to my friends with zero interest in the new album by The 1975 or know what Simping means. And then we use it in a sentence, and everyone thinks you are just age appropriating.

The other effect is what I call life dysmorphia. It is the thought that you should be able to handle the load or look as attractive as you once did. I am not going to lie; college students are an attractive bunch. They are in the prime of their lives. Flat stomachs, clear skin, great hair. And they can eat, and drink forever and not feel hung over or get fat. I am 48, I cannot do either of those things. Also, I do not have the stamina to workout myself to rock hard abs. Truth be told, I have never had rock hard abs so that has never changed. But there is a sense that we can make our lives play out the same way we did 25 years ago, and we are just kidding ourselves. As Baz Luhrmann announced in his 1999 song, Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen

“Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth, oh, never mind
You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth
Until they’ve faded, but trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back
At photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now
How much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked
You are not as fat as you imagine”

I think this is an issue that is specific to two lines of work. The first is the military. I can see how military folk can still feel they can workout and do the things they did as enlisted men and women. And we are the other group. I suspect some high school teachers feel this a bit, but high school kids start to get into the, “not want to do that again” stage of life. But the real threat is that as we age, we need to accept the things about our aging that makes us great. We have likely grown wiser, we often have hired people to do the heavy lifting who enjoy doing that, and we are usually in positions where we have more weekends off and can rest. While we need to continue to stay up to date with our students, the older we get I think the less they expect to connect in a buddy way and more as a friend. Because I think those of us who suffer from Peter Pan or Lifestyle Dysmorphia are fooling ourselves, but we are not fooling our students. I have yet to meet a student who has any less expectations than for us to be competent professionals who care about them and want them to do well.

When I was about 35, I had a student of mine say some thing that has stuck with me. She said, “Preston, we love you because you respect our space. We like the same music, but I don’t ever have to worry about you showing up to the club. That would be awkward.” And I think that is the point. We need to understand that we can be that person who connects with our students while still living as if we are maturing and growing. This work is hard enough to not have to do it while also showing off my abs and shot gunning a beer to a Megan Thee Stallion hit. I will leave Peter Pan in the book and just exercise because it is good for my blood pressure. And who shotguns a nice Hazy IPA from a good local brewery?

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