Young at Heart (Never Grow Up!)

Kelly Ann Beach
The author, at the eternal age of 8!

I remember the exact moment that I became a grownup.  It was on a playground in a suburb outside Philadelphia, and I was only twenty-one years old.   A six-year old, named Danny Goldstein, was to blame.

I’d spent the better part of my youth avoiding “growing up” because I knew that I didn’t want any place in that serious world of adults. In fact, at 13, when I could feel childhood slipping away, I made a tearful pact with myself to keep the magic alive.

In some ways holding onto my youth was easier for me than other teens because I came from a large family. Spending time with little ones kept me young–and busy–which shielded me from having to grow up too soon.  The first time I was “asked out,” I let my youngest sister answer for me.  At two-years old, her answer was always, “NO!”

Just before I entered high school, my father took me on a date to the movies where the closing song became my personal crusade: “Don’t you know that it’s worth every treasure on earth to be Young at Heart.”

The years passed though and soon enough, my interests began to change.  I started dating and driving and other teenage things.  My best friend and I were always on the lookout for markers of our impending adulthood:  the first time we drank coffee, the first road trip, the applications to college.  “Now we’re real women,” we’d say, never believing it was true.

By the time I were in college, my high school sweetheart starting talking marriage. M. was two years older than me and was more than ready to join the real world—as an accountant and husband. BUT I hadn’t even chosen a major yet and couldn’t see myself in any role that required panty hose, heels and the title, “Mrs.”  The day that he took me to look at rings, my hands began to sweat and I refused to get out of the car.

My fear of growing up took on such mythological proportions that even my youngest sister captured it in song.  At 3 years old, she spontaneously adapted a Peter Pan tune for me, singing, “You don’t want to grow up.  You don’t want to marry M.”

As my relationship with M. deteriorated, I decided upon elementary education as a major.  Now I never had to grown up!

…Enter my semester as a student teacher.  As seniors, my roommates had only a handful of classes a week while I spent all day—every day– with first graders!  As my friends tossed aside books and headed out to parties, I made lesson plans and called it a night.

After two weeks in the first grade, I found myself stealing naps on the milk-stained rug at recess time.  With ten weeks left to go, I began to doubt that this was the career for me.

It was in my last fateful days at Penn Wynne Elementary that my own youth was abruptly stolen. I arrived early to school that morning and just as I crossed the playground and stepped onto the blacktop, little Danny Goldstein, who wanted to be a paleontologist when he grew up, rushed at me with those irretrievable words:

Ms. Salasin!  Thank goodness a GROWNUP is here!

My world stopped.  My ears began to ring. I looked around the playground for the grownup to which Danny was referring, and found only–me.  I stumbled through the school doors and down the hall, wondering how it had happened.  How had  I become a grown up when I tried so hard not to be?

For a couple more years, I pretended it wasn’t so.  I turned my back on teaching, frolicked at the beach in the summer, back packed through Europe in the fall, spent a winter as a ski bum in Colorado, and at 22–made a pact with a lusty bartender to avoid credit, mortgages and marriages till at least the old age of 30 when we’d marry each other if we hadn’t found anyone else.

My frivolity caught up with me long before thirty however. After seven years of waiting, M. proposed to someone else!   I didn’t think it would matter, but it did.  I put up a good fight—humbly lost—and in the process, grew up.  My life of fun suddenly became stale.  Marriage and mortgages were held at bay, but I moved in with a man who swept me off my stubborn feet, and I even started substitute teaching.

The day that I was offered a full-time job, I cried as if someone had died.  But to my surprise, once I began teaching, I was happier than ever.  Within a few years, I wanted my own kids–and a house!

Though the realization that I was a grown up came in a single declarative sentence spoken by a six-year old on a playground, it truly didn’t happen in a one moment.   The “grown-up” thing creeps up on you over time and never stops clobbering you over the head:  like when you sign on the dotted line for 30 years; or when your closest friends tell you that their marriage is ending; or when your teenage son plays your old music, and you find yourself yelling, “Turn it down.”

When I take a good look back, I can see that “growing up” is something that started long before I’d even come of age.  The seed of that transformation was planted and watered through a series of childhood losses:

the day my cat “Licorice” didn’t come home;

the day I realized that people die–even parents and kids– not just pet turtles;

the day my father put me in charge of making sure my mom didn’t drink anymore;

the day my Nana Lila and her three best friends were killed in a car accident;

the day my parents split up and all my sisters turned toward me;

and the list goes on…

The truth is that I held onto childhood for too long because too much of it had been ripped away from me too soon.  And although I still have that 13 year old inside–promising to hold onto the magic– I have a grown up inside now too.  She can’t believe she’s 45, but I wouldn’t give her up.   I need them both, just as I need my three-year old and my eighty-year old, and everyone in between.

Over time, I’ve realized that the secret of staying “young at heart” isn’t about holding on to your youth, it’s about continuing to grow—up and out and all around.

Kelly Salasin, 2009

Kelly keeps it “young” from the Green Mountains of Vermont.  She welcomes your comments and conversation below.  She also highly recommends the dvd, Young @ Heart (You’re Never Too Old to Rock) featuring Northampton’s remarkable “senior” rockers!  Coldplay, The Clash & Hendrix will never sound the same!

Extra~ How Not to Act Old in 2010

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Resurrecting WCHS (Part II of An Un-Tribute to My Alma Mater)

WCHS
Hail Alma Mater, Wildwood Catholic High

Hard to believe that my Alma Mater is giving me homework–29 years after graduation.  At least now I enjoy the writing process.  But 2 “assigned” posts is too much in one week of a (rebellious) blogger-mother’s life.

Yet, once I get the “nudge,” it’s almost impossible to resist.   Even if I don’t put my fingers to the keys, the story starts writing itself–at the most inconvenient times.  Like when I’m trying to sleep or make love or drive in the snow.

So here I am, taking my assignment like a good Catholic schoolgirl. Only this time, I’ve been asked to resurrect my dying Alma Mater–rather than bash it.

If nothing else, the closing of Wildwood Catholic marks the end of an era even while its legacy lives on in its graduates who are the greatest testimony to its enduring value.

Take a quick glance at my class of ’81:

Ralph at the Pentagon, John on the State Superior Court Bench, Carole traveling the world, Gwyn living it UP in the deep South, Deb working oncology, Kathy mothering a sick child who recently passed away, Joe teaching history, Patrice coaching swimming, Lou Ann raising two fine boys, Kelley a college professor, Jesse a Public Defender–and that’s just the people that come to mind in this instance–the list goes on.

Which brings pause to my diatribe against the school and makes me wonder,

What did I learn at Wildwood Catholic High?  What were the teaching moments that made a difference?

I see myself back in the basement, standing in the cafeteria–not in line for a wet pretzel or a Friday cheesesteak (Were those moms dedicated or what!) or even for the “Last Dance”–but for a testimonial–on behalf of  Sister Henrietta–Catholic’s Principal, back in the day.

I can see her flocked with nuns as they play her favorite song and she wells up. “You Light Up My Life…”  This struck me.  It was a mushy love song.  And then it hit me.  This is her song for God.  And I was moved.

Next stop is the Principal’s Office.  Sister Marie, this time.  I’ve been called down because of the political cartoon I turned in for Turco and Stubbs’ Senior Social Issues class.  The cartoon was my commentary on Marie’s new policy of “no driving” off campus at lunch time.

Granted, in the past, seniors were heading to Woody’s for lunch and throwing down “a few” with their beef. (The drinking age was 18.) But that didn’t take away our indignation over the newly imposed restriction. (Teens excel at indignation.)

My cartoon featured Sister Marie with a ruler, standing at the corner, overseeing a group of chained seniors heading to A & LP where we would now be charged exorbitant prices for a slice of pizza.

Sister Marie would like to see you in her office,” Turco told me when I arrived for class the Monday after turning in my assignment.  Gulp.

She had the cartoon on her desk when I arrived.  “Kelly, take a seat, and tell me about this,” she said, in her typically stern manner.  Gulp.

But you know what she did?  She simply dismissed me, saying “Thank you, Kelly, I’m going to have it framed for my office.” Surprise.  Even Principals could be cool.

I have to acknowledge that my studies at Wildwood Catholic were celebrated in more ways than this. Upon  a recommendation by the Art Teacher (whose name I wish I could recall), I was asked to design a banner on behalf of WCHS to welcome “THE POPE”  on his visit through South America.  Apparently, it didn’t matter that I was a Protestant, as long as I could draw Mary and some lillies. I felt honored and expanded–and included.

Art also helped me find my way onto the gym floor (since sports would never do that for me 🙂  I was asked to help design and paint the new emblem at Center Court.   With two athletic boys of my own now, I marvel at the dedication and performance that I took for granted in highschool.  And I wonder, what will happen to the WCHS banners and trophies?  And what about that legacy?

I’m glad to hear the school will stay a school, and a Catholic one at that.  After years of teaching in the public system, I did a short stint in religious education, directing the program at a Unitarian/Universalist Church.   While administration wasn’t for me, I’ve always loved the study of religion and the pursuit of “understanding.”  My favorite Theology teacher at Catholic was a nun who was just there for a short time, but in whose class I delighted in our studies–going on to take three more Theology classes at my Catholic college.

And while I didn’t continue in theater at the college level, my participation in the FTT musicals at WCHS were a huge fulcrum for my sense of self–and belonging.  I’ll never forget the feeling during yet another grueling late night rehearsal (and a Saturday night at that!) when Feraco would stop us to say,

You did it!  I got chills.

Despite this extraction of sweetness from my years at WCHS, the news of its closing unearthed a range of emotions and memories that found their way into my first “assignment,” An Un-Tribute to my Alma Mater. And by the slew of comments that I received (better than any “A,”) my perspective struck a chord with many–often harmonious– and occasionally sour.  Of the latter, this one stirs the most:

You were popular and well liked. I’m surprised you don’t feel more disappointed at the loss of the school. You too must have had many good memories, there were many fun times. There are still pictures and banners of friend’s records there that add to a sense of belonging to something bigger than us. It marks the success of completing a challenge, a place we became adults.

I was surprised about my own “negative” feelings too–which is exactly why I wrote that piece– as part confessional/part exploration.  But John Osborne continued to put me in my place when he added this about the direct affect the closing had on his family,

My son just got the news of the end of the school. I wish you could sit in our house and see how the wind gets sucked out of a family.

And while fellow alumni Dan Rosenello ’86 shared that he heartily appreciated my “Un-tribute” , he closed with this “on the mark” sensitivity,

…For good or bad , it was and is the school where I began my own trip into adulthood, and as such , I will miss it. Godspeed WCHS.

And thus, I’ll  close Part II of my Un-Tribute with the apropos sentiment of a fellow graduate, Tracy O’Brien ’80.

The most precious thing I took from Wildwood Catholic were my friends, I am still close with them today, and I love them all. I hope people read your letter in the spirit it was written, the truth isn’t always pretty, and it isn’t all ugly either.

With a special nod to Trish DiAntonio, also from the class of  ’80, who tipped the scale on this second homework assignment, with these words:

I hope you write a follow up! I can’t wait to read more.

Thank you Wildwood Catholic, new friends and old.

Kelly Salasin, WCHS ’81

Click on the links below for related work:
Part I of the Un-Tribute to WCHS

Never Grow Up!

Connect with the dynamic group working to Save Wildwood Catholic You can also find more WCHS groups on Facebook.

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