While teaching in an after-school program one evening, Epiphany walked up and punched me in the face. It happened in the middle of a writing exercise I gave my students. The enthusiasm of some had them writing right away, while others sighed and laid their heads on the desks.
One of them rolled her eyes and said, “I’m guh!” To which I said, “You’re what?” As the students laughed, unwilling to tell me what it meant out of concern that an outsider will know their coded language, I felt every bit of 30—and some.
I thought of when I once sat where they were, laughing with my friends at the strained expression on our teacher’s face. We used a word she wasn’t familiar with and she asked us what it meant. Instead of an explanation, all she got was us laughing and pointing at her just like my students’ response to my unsuccessful efforts at getting one myself; these middle school kids weren’t talking.
I had to ask a high school student, who’s among the few that come back each year to their alma mater to hang out with their friends at the workshop. When she told me what it meant, I wondered how did this happen? How was it possible for a member of the hip hop generation to be anything but?
I don’t know if that was what Sophocles meant when he said, “A man growing old becomes a child again,” that no matter how old we get life still has a thing or two to teach us. Another thought crossed my mind. When I sat where my students sat, 30 seemed so old it was depressing. At the time, my friends and I asked each other, “Is there anything to do after 30, besides die?”
At the time, our thinking was that you had fun in your teens, settled down in your early 20s, then got ready for old age after 25. If only someone told us then that growing old, as singer and actor Maurice Chevalier once put it, “is the reward of a well-spent youth.”
If only we knew then that old age wasn’t the “sad and melancholy prospects of decay,” but the “hopes of eternal youth in a better world,” according Chevalier.
Since then, I’ve learned better than to fear what comes after 25, even if it means being as unhip as we once thought our parents were. That day in the after-school workshop wasn’t the first time Epiphany smacked me over the head.
She did it a year earlier, when I was giving a young woman a ride. The woman worked under my fiancée at a nonprofit advocacy group. That day, everyone was in a festive mood after pulling off the first-ever youth-led hearing that addressed the issues of foster teens aging out of the system without proper supports.
I was proud of all the teens who testified that day in the council chamber. They had the ear of DC Council Member Tommy Wells, who chaired the Committee on Human Services, which is responsible for welfare, social, and youth affairs.
The young woman and I were on our way to the restaurant where everyone else was waiting. She sat in the back, nodding to Pharoahe Monch, Cannibal Ox, and a slew of other underappreciated emcees I had playing through my stereo.
I felt good putting a 16-year-old on to some real music. Watching her in the rearview mirror, I smiled at how she seemed to enjoy what she was hearing. I smiled at the thought of being 29 and still hip—that is, until she said, “I think it’s cool when old people listen to hip-hop.” And out of nowhere, came the scratching sound of a record needle across vinyl grooves.
When I told her 29 is not old, she rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, OK.” I guess I shouldn’t have taken it personal, considering Betty Friedan’s wisdom. “Aging is not lost youth,” the writer and activist once said, “but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”
That day in the after-school workshop was also Epiphany’s way of reiterating her message. The word “Guh,” according to the high school student, is a term used in the DC-Maryland-Virginia area to express when someone or something frustrates you.
So, I made my students “guh.” Even Mr. Hip-hop—with his ability to recall every rhyme from his favorite emcees; who played his music loud inside his car, sometimes with the windows down—couldn’t escape becoming his parents. Or that teacher back in middle school, who frustrated my friends and I because she pushed us to produce our best work.
When I told my students, “I’m sorry for making you all so guh,” they looked at one another before busting a gut. And given what Epiphany’s shown me, I don’t feel so unhip despite their comments. “Nah, Mr. King,” they said, still laughing. “It don’t sound right when you say it.”