I was the only adult in my year at UWCSEA. I mean I was the oldest – yes you read that right, O-L-D-E-S-T – “kid” in my year at UWCSEA and I was deeply ashamed to admit it. But I didn’t have to – people knew. But it didn’t stop there. In college, I was the oldest female student in a class of 240+ students. In fact, as a first year student I was about the same age as or even older than most of the final year students. It was nothing to be proud of. I was sensitive about it and was embarrassed, deeply embarrassed by this. I was not accustomed to being the anomaly (age-wise) and I was NOT prepared to handle the pressure and stigma that came with being considered too old for my level.
When I applied for the UWC scholarship, I was aware of the opportunity cost involved. I was technically ‘losing’ two years (since I was ‘repeating’ high school), but it was a sacrifice I was willing to make (and I have no regrets I did). The exposure and knowledge to be gained would far surpass anything I’d be exposed to at home, I reasoned. Besides due to the variance in the academic calendars (UWC applications open in March but WASSCE results (requirement for UWC scholarship) are released in September), it was impossible to apply for the scholarship in the same year of graduation. We had to wait till the following year to apply and start school. I was 18 years old when I applied and turned 19 one week after I arrived at the UWCSEA in Singapore. It was then that I discovered that I was the oldest student in our class.
It didn’t take me long to notice that people were obsessed, or so it seemed to me, with age. I am sixteen. How old are you? Even when asked innocently those few words made my heart drop ten-thousand feet into the pit of my stomach. Why do they have to ask? I would often wonder. I am nineteen. Nineteen? You’re old! It was usually meant to be a joke but I wasn’t laughing. (I later learned how to respond with a much dignified I am old enough). Somehow, word about my age got around quickly and I became very self conscious. Consequently, I dreaded, loathed age-related discussions and became visibly uncomfortable (sweaty palms and all) every time the subject came up. I couldn’t mask my emotions. It affected the way I interacted with the minors and juveniles. I mean the other students. I felt like an adult but didn’t quite know how to act like one. I was a kid at heart and at home (had always been the goofy one in my family) but now I felt like I needed to act my age. I clammed up and was no longer my outgoing self.
The worst part was that I came to dread my birthdays. I did not like or enjoy my birthdays anymore because it meant growing older. Age was no longer just a number; it formed part of my identity. Fortunately, my 19th birthday was the only birthday I spent during the academic year. School was usually closed on my birthdays and I was happy to spend them away from curious minds.
Moreover, there were many age-related incidents that left a bitter taste in my mouth but the following took home the prize for most embarrassing moments. I had performed well in a certain subject (better than my friend) but instead of an awkward silence (which would have been better) I was congratulated with a comment about how I was supposed to do well because my brain was more developed and hence could easily grasp the concept. OUCH. That hurt. That comment cut deep. I worked just as hard and the material was just as new to me as it was to other students. As I recall the incident, I could think of a thousand things I could have said in response but I was tongue-tied at the time.
On another occasion, we were on a field trip and a student was talking about his father’s newest conquest (a much younger girlfriend) when someone else remarked, be careful Sadia is old enough to be one of your father’s girlfriends. I wasn’t even part of the conversation so you can imagine my reaction. I would have been much grateful if the ground had opened up and swallowed me then. I was too stunned, shocked and embarrassed to respond. There were many more encounters with snide comments and not-so-funny jokes in college but by the grace of God, I survived.
I must confess that I struggled to write this post – it brought back too many unpleasant memories. I realized that it is relatively easier to write about growing up in a zinc shack (probably because it was a shared experience and it was to a large extent a public struggle) than it is to write about personal struggles/insecurities which are more private. In any case, I pressed on because I believe God wanted me to share my story so I could help someone else who may be struggling with age-related issues or some other type of insecurity. I would say to you what I should have said to my 25-year old self, don’t let it hold you back. I’ve come to realize that when you are insecure about anything – age or otherwise – it gives other people power, so much power, over you. They essentially control your life . And some people would take advantage of that. They’d capitalize on your insecurities and make you feel small – if you let them.
Even though the situation bothered me, it didn’t stop me. It couldn’t. I was too old for that! I excelled in class and graduated with honors from college. Even if I was older, it still doesn’t take away from my successes. Years later, the age difference is a non-issue; what matters is I excelled in spite of all my challenges, to the glory of God.
And by-the-way, I turned thirty – yes 30 – a few months ago and I was and I am happy I did. God has been faithful to me all through the years. By His grace, I have finally come to that place where I can fully accept all that I am and understand that my background and experiences – good and bad – do not define me and certainly would not limit me. I am a living testimony of what God can do with a life. I pray that you will fully embrace all that you are and not be a slave to anyone’s opinion of you.
No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. – Eleanor Roosevelt
The proud 30-year old Daughter of the King