Being the Youngest in the Room

By Rachel Wong

baby-university-classroom

…Not quite. Though sometimes it feels that way.

A few weeks ago, before class, my memoir workshop somehow got onto the topic of age. The woman sitting next to me was teasing our classmate. “You’re so young! Still a baby. You must be the youngest in the class.”

“Uh,” I shifted in my seat, “I’m actually younger than that.”

The other conversations died down at my response. “What? How old are you?”

“Twenty-one.”

She gaped. “How is that even possible?” After a cursory explanation of graduating an undergraduate program early, the professor walked in, casually late as usual. “Professor, did you know Rachel’s only twenty- one?”

“Really?” The professor’s brows rose high above her bangs.

“That’s right.” I wanted to sink right into my chair and disappear.

“Well, then, I suppose we should expect great things from you.”

Don’t get me wrong – it does feel amazing to have accomplished what I have in a shorter span than my colleagues, but this was the exact situation I tried to avoid. It’s not that I lied about my age, or that I pretended to be older or younger than I actually am, but I didn’t like telling others how old I was. As soon as they knew, they treated me differently.

I asked around and, apparently, this doesn’t happen to just me. My friends confirmed what I suspected: there is a strange standard of work when you’re the youngest, or one of the youngest. If I turned in great work, I was called “prodigious.” If my work was slightly less than expected, I was told, “You’re young. You don’t need to be an expert now.” While this helps when you’re just starting out, it’s obvious that you aren’t treated the same as other workers.

Those who are older than me congratulate me for finding my passion and work at a young age; they tell me they wish they had when they were my age. In a way, being the youngest in the room is a good thing – you have, theoretically, more time to learn than anyone else in the room. It is true that it is advantageous to know what you want and to be where you always wanted to be at a young age, but there is also a lingering feeling of inadequacy, thoughts like, “If my qualifications put me on equal ground with the rest of the team in this room, why can’t I figure this out myself?”

Michelle, a friend, has to constantly remind me not to hold myself to the same standards as the people I look up to, because the majority of them had many years of a head start on me. (In freelancing, and even writing, this head start can even range to several decades.) While that is true, the odd dual standard of being the youngest in the room makes it hard to pinpoint where you stand at work, or class, because there is always a leniency that is lent when you’re the youngest.

It’s an insecurity that comes with the territory of going into the field you desire from the get-go. There is not much I can say in consolation other than that this phase is temporary. You will not be the youngest in the workplace or classroom forever, nor will you remain in the same position. The only thing you have control over is the insecurity that comes with youth. But, then again, the skills and confidence you desire comes with time and age.

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