19 July 2013

La jeunesse

Two paintings by Agnolo di Cosimo, Firenze, Uffizi, 1540's
One of my favorite lessons in my sociology of family course is on the changing meanings of childhood.  Some argue that children in the past centuries were essentially treated as little adults, contributing to household economies and serving as means by which to solidify family alliances.  Only later when the industrial revolution altered familial functions and roles do we see the emergence of childhood as a special stage of life. Children's ages and feelings may not have changed, but how they are viewed and presented in society has, which is another way of saying that while age may be reflected physically and psychologically, it is also social.  (The images above portray children of the Medici family as small adults.  From our contemporary view, we might guess that these children were chafing in those adult-like outfits and poses.) We also have cultural and class-based variations in our understandings of childhood;  I have learned this week that the French often call adolescence l'âge bête, which conveys the idea that humans are born uncivilized.  It is through childhood and adolescence that they are taught to curb their animal-like natures in order to become productive and upstanding members of society.  In the U.S. we currently have multiple trends, where children are pushed to become little adults and over-achievers, or are seen as capable decision-makers with whom we can reason, or are left to their own devices.  The social understandings of age continue to evolve, as meanings of childhood, of la jeunesse (youth), of young adulthood, and even middle age and old age change, due to economic conditions and changing perceptions of marriage, non-marital sexual activity, parenthood, and longer life spans.

This week I have had further affirmation of how age is a social feature but also an inner state of mind that may not always correspond to the social meaning.  For the past three weeks, I have been part of the first cours intensif de francais (French intensive language course) at the shiny new Alliance Française language school in Aix.  Alongside my Chinese, English, and Spanish classmates, I have been eagerly and diligently working my way through French subjunctives, gerunds, and transitional phrases, just like an eager-to-please first grader in the front row of her classroom.  As a small class, we are all struggling, laughing, and succeeding together, deciphering oral dialogues and correcting the order of double pronouns, pronouncing difficult words so they don't sound like vulgarities (pourtant: pronounce the r, otherwise you get a bad word), learning useful phrases for phone texting, like à + (à plus, which is short for à plus tard, see you later), and ways to describe, or envisager, our dreams for our future.  We take our coffee or tea breaks together and bavarder (chat) a bit.  It seems like we are in the same boat.

But in fact, we are not.  One young classmate has a musical career with a traveling orchestra, while the other two are still students, embarking on post-undergraduate studies in Paris this fall and are in the midst of finding affordable apartments and figuring out bank accounts and cell phones.  I am twice the age of these students, okay...over twice the age, and I am in a completely different life stage.  Just the other day, we took turns selecting discussion questions, and I realized that I chose ones that clearly reflected my current situation as the mother of adolescents, while the students are in intimate relationships.  Learning French, and moving to a new country, yes, we have those things in common, but it is so interesting to realize that one can feel so youthful and so old en même temps!  (at the same time!)   It's not a feeling I often have, as a university and college instructor where I instruct many students the age of my current classmates.  As a temporary student myself though, I guess I feel 21 again, despite my outward appearance and my life stage.   That's what is so confounding, that one can feel much younger (or older) than one's social age.  Fortunately, my classmates don't see my social age as too much of a barrier; we might even go out for drinks next week.

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