I Am, in Fact, an Adult

It’s harder figuring this out than it sounds.

“Can I go to the bathroom?”

I look at the 8-year-old tugging my sleeve. She’s waiting for me to give her an answer. If I tell her no, she’ll have no choice but to rejoin the circle and wait until snack time.

I wave her along. I don’t see why she should have to wait.

This was, I think, the weirdest part of my summer. It wasn’t just the fact that I had some control over how often 16 kids went to the bathroom, but it was also that these kids actually seemed to think I was an authority. When did I become someone who gives permission? When did I become someone who’s old enough to supervise children six hours a day?

The strangest part of this past summer was discovering that I am, in fact, an adult.

It’s not that I didn’t know this already. The candles on my birthday cake have been subtly pointing out my legality for the past three years. I go to college, where I’m surrounded by other adults. I pay bills, I drive, and sometimes I form adult-like opinions.

All the numbers point to me being old enough to survive on my own. But somehow none of this really made much of an impact until a whole bunch of kids, ages eight to 13, were listening to me just because they were supposed to.

I was one of three women running an arts camp for children through the theater where I was interning. Gina, Abby, and I were the ones who told these kids what was on the agenda. We were the ones who told them to quiet down when they were being rowdy, told them when lunch break was, told them when recess was over. We were the ones who marveled to each other that these kids don’t remember Rainbow Brite because they were still pre-in-vitro.

In addition to the fact that it was a shock to my system to realize that when I was the age of these kids, some of them weren’t even alive yet, I was also struggling with viewing myself as an authority figure. I don’t see myself as much of a leader. I just don’t.

I’ve spent my life learning, listening to what other authority figures had to say. I’ve been pretty happy with that. I’m disoriented when I have to be the one from whom others are learning, at least in an organized fashion. So when Gina would ask me in the morning to run the vocal warm-up, I’d sort of freeze in fear inside.

I’d think in terror, “I can’t run the warm-up! I can’t control 16 kids! I can’t deal with 16 pairs of eyes and ears waiting for my next move! I can’t I can’t I can’t!”

But then I could. When I said, “Okay guys, listen up,” they actually listened up. When I told them to repeat what I said, they did it. It was miraculous.

But I was still frozen inside. Tense, anyway. Waiting for the moment they’d all get bored of listening to me and obeying, waiting for the moment when Abby would have to step in and yell at them because I’m the pushover.

It never happened, though. And gradually I understood that they listened to me because it was expected. Because I was a foot-and-a-half taller than they were. Because I was the assistant director. Because I knew how the rickety microwave worked and where the dressing room bathroom was.

And there’s something to be said for knowing more about a topic than anyone who’s listening to you. I’m not just talking about the inner workings of 15-year-old microwaves. We plugged 16 child actors, a lot of them inexperienced, into a production of Cinderella: The World’s Favorite Fairy Tale, and we started building from the ground up. These kids were paying to learn about theater, and we crammed heaps of knowledge into their young little minds whether they wanted to know or not.

This, too, was a startling realization. This knowledge, this theater knowledge, was something I could actually back up. It was something I was — well, educated in. After a good nine classes or so in theater background, history, and skills, I’ve discovered that I really do know what I’m talking about.

It was the truth when I told Cinderella #1 that cheating out is important as an actor. And it was the truth when I pointed out to Gina that we really didn’t have enough visual levels in the opening scene and that we also weren’t conveying the non-literal levels at all.

It was also the truth when Gina told me that this was a kids’ show and that their parents weren’t going to care if we expressed the stepsisters’ cruelty and self-indulgence through subtle blocking techniques.

Of course, since I was an adult, the kids also expected me to know information beyond the stage and the microwaves. There were the questions they assumed I knew the answers to.

Allison comes to me at lunchtime, sweatered arms wrapped around herself.

“Can we turn off the air conditioning in the theater? I’m cold.”

I shake my head. “No. We don’t control it.”

She looks at me, wide-eyed. “Why?”

“The air conditioning runs through a separate system controlled by the school. We can’t get to it.”

I didn’t bother to explain that the air conditioning gets colder depending on the amount of carbon dioxide breathed into the air. She’d probably have asked me why we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Instead she asked: “But why?”

Because we’re all too lazy to hunt down the custodian and listen to him mutter about what a demanding bunch of summer theater bastards we are. Putting on a sweater is much simpler. Duh.

“Um, we just can’t.”

She gives me another wide-eyed stare, then wanders away. Maybe she’s figured out that I don’t know everything.

I think I went into this job thinking of children as intimidating, unruly beasts and of myself as the screwed substitute teacher. Somewhere along the way I remembered that I wasn’t the substitute. And they turned out to be less bloodthirsty villains and more curious, inquisitive, excited balls of energy.

I guess kids are the same everywhere. They’ll be who they are whether it’s 1902, 1992, or 2002. And I guess adults are the same, too. Maybe one of the camp counselors I had 12 years ago realized she was an adult when she asked me to pick up my clothes and I obeyed. Or when I didn’t obey, and she had the authority to give me latrine duty. But never mind about that.

I’m still 10 years old, sort of. I can transfer myself right back to the way I felt about things at that age. I can remember the light-hearted and carefree feelings, when a teacher assigning both the odd and the even math problems was the biggest burden of schoolwork. But I’m pretty happy here, now, as an adult. I’m pretty happy having at least a couple of the answers.

Article © 2002 by Jill Coste