This is deceptive. I am, in fact, the oldest child. I am a middle cousin on both sides of my family.
But I started school early, apparently being a bright kid. I entered first grade at age five; later that year, I remember taking an IQ test to see if I could be admitted into a gifted school. Then we moved, and the school was no longer applicable. I don't even know now whether I got in.
I was always the youngest child in the class, maybe in the entire grade. I started every year one year younger than my peers, moved up to their stage on my birthday, October third. Some kids would turn seven eight nine just when I was turning six seven eight. I was always behind. I was little, thin, deceptively wiry.
And for a long time, the combination of youth and brightness was enough to make people gape at me in astonishment. Nine-year-olds on the playground saying, "You're only eight? Oh, my GOD." "Well, I'm nine." "I'm nine." "Why are you in our grade?" "When did you learn to read?"
I learned to read at age three, ordering my mother to read The Three Billy Goats Gruff over and over until I knew it by heart, until I made the visual connection myself. I climbed out of my crib at naptime and screamed at the door I could not open, then fell asleep on the floor with a book. At age three.
Of course they sent me to school as early as they did. In kindergarten I went to the first grade reading class. That is the only time I can remember not knowing every single word. In second grade, I finished my spelling and worked on my other, more interesting things afterward, got yelled at for doing art when it was spelling time. But I knew these words! I could write in cursive! I was done! Granted I did not always finish my math, but still.
It was always like that. I was insufferable for a while: openly staring when kids didn't know a word I used, mispronouncing huge words I had read but never heard. I'm surprised I didn't get hit more often. Maybe it was since I was a girl. A tiny thin girl bursting with indignance or laughter or anger over something or other. An eight nine ten year old girl. Only eight nine ten.
After a while, it was almost an excuse. Whenever I did something wrong, well, I was the youngest in the class, and it did make sense that I would make mistakes. I was, after all, a grade ahead of all the kids my age. I thought about them sometimes, the kids a year behind me. My cousin Paul, a month older than I, was a year behind. I was glad to be in my grade. I liked the kids. I liked the teachers. And I knew I was smart. Oh, I knew it. I was smarter and I ran with the older kids. Nine ten eleven, in the gifted reading program, reading Oliver Twist every year at the swimming pool. Reading Jane Eyre in the backyard, or up in the maple tree.
By junior high, I was even in advanced math.
I tested into private high school, age thirteen, and suddenly became not quite the youngest kid in a much larger, more difficult, far more competitive school. I was still among the youngest, yes, but I didn't have a November birthday like Eric, a December one like Kristy. I was not the full year behind that Jim, who had skipped a grade, was. I would discuss age limits on getting into kindergarten with my friends. In some school districts the cutoff was at August birthdays, some up to December. So some kids just got in early by luck. My district's cutoff date had been October; I knew now that I had gotten in under the wire. I was that aware of my age, my intellectual status.
And this was a private, terrifying school, a school in which you were expected to do three hours of homework every night, a school where everyone had tested in, where everyone was as smart as me, or smarter. Kids I knew and liked went across the street to Illinois Benedictine College (now Benedictine University) for their calculus classes every other day. We all asked each others' grades, compared SAT and ACT scores. "I got a 1350." "Well, I got a 1375." We all hurled ourselves against the wall, studying. We knew exactly where we stood.
Kids younger than I was were in more advanced classes, and I was scared. I was not one of the smart ones. I have not seen myself as a smart kid since then; I have seen myself as a young kid, trying to keep up. My friends now are astonished when I tell them this. I don't see why. I did all right, but nothing brilliant; I came close to failing both Spanish and chemistry, and when we moved away I took a B minus average with me.
Senior year I was suddenly in public school, a school no one tested into, the youngest kid again, getting a straight A average with no effort, passing the AP tests with flying colors, and graduating at age seventeen. I was doing well, for someone so young.
University was all right; I had lost a couple study habits, but recovered pretty well. I was taking interesting classes and had a good group of friends. I wasn't quite the youngest -- there were again a few kids younger than I -- but I was close. I started taking 300 level classes freshman year. By the time I graduated, not the full year early that my parents had pushed for, but a semester early, I had earned myself a double major and a good, although not flawless, GPA. But that was ok; I was still so young, and graduating early, with a double major to boot! Look at all I had done, I said to myself, that D plus in renaissance history wasn't so bad. It was my only grade below a C, and I was trying to take other classes, and anyway that was a terrible semester, complete with a traumatic breakup and a dropped class. It was ok. And I was still graduating two months after I turned 21, with an acceptance to grad school at the University of Michigan soon to be under my belt.
Excuse excuse excuse. And so I came into the MFA program, the youngest in the program by a full year. The oldest people in my year hovered around 30. And I was about to turn 22.
It is strange, now, one year after my graduation. I got flying colors; I did well. I took last year off, for breathing space; I never had a chance to be out of school before. And I applied to graduate schools for next year, terrifying, elite schools, and I did not get in. I am 24 and one half, and I cannot start my PhD work until I am 25 going on 26, at the earliest. If all goes exactly as planned, I will get the degree at age thirty. Thirty.
This is still young for such a degree. This is a good age at which to get a PhD. It is.
So why am I so scared?
I will come into my next program on an even keel with the other candidates. I have never been on such an equal level before. 25 is a pretty normal age at which to enter grad school; it might even be a little old to start. The MFA program has been getting younger, visibly younger, since I have been here. I might be one of the older ones. I might be one of the oldest.
I might tell myself that I have been surviving on my own merit for a long time, that age does not matter, that I have done so many things already. These are true, I suppose, and I don't exactly regret my decisions.
But I can't help thinking that I would be three years into a five year program right now if I had only taken that offer at the University of Chicago. I would still be the young one, maybe the youngest; I would have been receiving my PhD at age 26. I would have been prodigious, and my mistakes would have turned out ok.
And now I am not, and I will not be the youngest. I have no defenses; it is and will be only me.