Youth studies wisdom, old age practices it

Thirty years ago I was an English teacher at an eastern suburbs high school. The students were generally a conscientious and pleasant bunch but they included the usual cohort of rebels, misfits and eccentrics. Kevin was none of these. He was a stocky lad, not an especially capable student yet pleasant enough. His unique characteristic was a worldly self-confidence that suggested experiences far beyond his fourteen or fifteen years.

Inevitably, in classes full of students with febrile adolescent libidos, discussion occasionally

turned to issues of sex and relationships. On one memorable occasion, we were talking

about courtship and marriage. This might have been connected to a novel we were reading

at the time or perhaps it was a matter that arose spontaneously at some point. After

several thoughtful contributions from various class members, I turned to Kevin and asked

his opinion.

I was already prepared for something unique and amusing because in an earlier class on

the topic of euthanasia, he’d told a story about a supposedly authentic abortion clinic that

worked under the motto ‘no foetus can beat us’. However on this occasion Kevin’s cynical

and succinct summation of marriage surprised me. ‘Why buy a book when you can join the

library?’ he said. Most of the boys in the class sniggered while the girls, depending on their moral views, looked at Kevin with either growing interest or barely concealed distaste.

At the time, I was not partnered and becoming tired of intrusive questions from female

colleagues about why not. One in particular, a quick-witted and charming European

woman, was especially insistent. The next time she inquired I responded triumphantly

‘Why buy a book when you can join the library?’ hinting at a carefree, rapscallion life of fun

and irresponsibility. However I was quickly undone. With barely a moment’s reflection, she

replied softly ‘Because my dear, as you get older you have to walk to the library and it’s

very nice to have a book on the shelf.’

I’ve thought about this response many times since and its sobering truth has assumed

deeper meaning as I have aged. Partners have come and gone, provided love and

companionship for years or floated by like ships passing in the night. Now at seventy years old and alone, I think more frequently about the conversations with Kevin and my female colleague. Old sayings like ‘make hay while the sun shines’ and ‘life is short’ echo hollowly in my subconscious. No matter how tattered the binding and how dog-eared the pages, perhaps it would be very nice to have a book on the shelf.

(Image by Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash)