OPINION: Your childhood isn’t over at 20

A teddy bear, toy car and video game controller sit amongst drawn-on clouds, grass and a sun.
(Bella Pettengill • The Student Life)

One of my favorite short stories isEleven” by Sandra Cisneros. I love the way it starts: “What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one.” The speaker, Rachel, is the age that her birthday decrees, but she is also the summation of all the years before it. Rachel is made whole not only by the year ahead of her but the years totaling her current age; she is the totality of her odysseys of wisdom.

College you is not an isolated version of yourself, but rather a marker of growth in your quest for maturity. In the same way as Cisneros’ Rachel is 11, I am 20. I am 20 and reading a plethora of books at home over quarantine, I am 19 and graduating high school with my best friends and I am 18 and unearthing my sense of self. 

However, being 20 and a junior in college feels farther away from my youth as compared to being 19 or 18. I am in my twenties and thus expected to be relentlessly looking forward. Twenty feels like a signal to shed the years behind you in pursuit of the years ahead. At 20, you should be occupied with finishing the semester strong; at 20, you should be looking for an internship for the following summer. And at 20, you are encouraged to know exactly what you want to do with the rest of your life. 

Perhaps because it marks the official end of teenagehood and the beginning of adulthood, there’s tension between 20 and the years preceding it that didn’t exist with previous birthdays. How do I balance my younger self, who is so integral to the person I am now, with the professional, career-oriented person I will be? Quite frequently, I am hit with the unwelcome awareness of the phenomenon of maturity. In many ways, college ages a person faster than they’re prepared for. You are asked to prepare for a future that might make you unrecognizable to your younger self: a possibly more serious, career-oriented, competitive you.

However, despite the expectations associated with the beginning of a new decade, 20 is not the end of your previous years. Rather, the task at hand for 20-year-olds is just figuring out how to be an amalgamation of all of their selves — their young self, their current self and their future self. 

Despite its perplexities, finding that medium will allow you to grow into yourself with the stability and the confidence necessary to to feel like the most authentic you. Although I have not mastered this feat myself, I have a couple assurances that keep me on track. For one, the happiest version of myself is the one that is most proud of what I represent. An overcompensating version of myself is the warning bell. It is a reminder that I am pushing myself to give more than I can or to act older than I am when neither of those things serve me. But the reading and writing for pleasure, engaging in art, making free time a priority and boundary-setting version of myself is the green light.

As college students, we should connect with our younger selves so we can continue to draw from those pockets of joy in the years ahead of us. Watch that movie that made you laugh uncontrollably when you were younger; venture into that mystical hidden spot where you were a character in a fantastical play. Let your creative juices flow into that journal or scrapbook that houses your innermost feelings; listen to that nostalgic song that used to call forth movement from your body.

Hold tight onto the parts of yourself that you think you have to sacrifice for your looming future. You are the summation of your years, and every single moment — no matter how trivial — is a part of who you will be. I am the evolution of my music taste, just as I am the conglomeration of my academic interests. Though vastly different, both are integral to my sense of identity. 

To all 20-year-olds and other in-betweeners: Your younger self is not as far away as you think they are. Immerse yourself in what makes your heart happy. Yes, your future self is a welcome addition, but your childish, less mature self deserves to be indulged as well. As Cisnero’s story suggests, age is an invisible string we carry into our adult years. We must nurture that thread enough for it to last. 

Shay Suresh CM ’24 is from San Jose, California. She loves literary fiction, indie music and watching “Game of Thrones.”

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