April 1, 2004
It’s Nothin’ But A Number
“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you really are?”
—Leroy “Satchel” Paige
I was in a store recently when I heard a crash, followed by a loud, miserable wail. I turned and saw a boy of maybe 10 struggling to his feet, sobbing, as a younger boy and girl fell all over each other laughing and pointing.
Before I could react, a woman came flying around the same corner. I heard her before I saw her.
“What is all that noise? Boy, I told you not to run. What is wrong with you? Look at this mess. Oh, I know you’re not crying, not as big and grown as you are! You’d better not!”
It starts when we’re really young, that focus on our age and the expected, appropriate behavior surrounding it. Over and over it’s thrown in our faces. We’re told we’re too big to cry or suck our thumbs, too young to drive or hang out late, too heavy to be carried, too small and powerless to do anything other than what we’re told to do.
All those rules and restrictions make us spend our entire young lives wishing we were grown. But then, when we’re finally old enough to do exactly what we want, what do most of us do? We limit ourselves the same way, holding back our emotions, reining ourselves in from adventure, denying our true selves and desires, oftentimes a direct result of trying to “act our age.”
After too few years of living as a free spirit, we start checking ourselves. We conform to the “norm,” but we lose out on so much in the process. Then, that age-old question comes to mind: What would you do if you thought you couldn’t fail? Furthermore, what would you do if age were not a factor?
The pages of our history are filled with the names of people whose achievements defied their ages. Stevie Wonder was already a composer who had mastered three instruments when he was signed to Motown at the age of 12. Martin Luther King Jr. was just 26 when he organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott, thrusting him into the national spotlight. Conversely, Elizabeth and Sarah Delany wrote their first book—the unforgettable best-seller Having Our Say (Dell; $7.99)—at ages 101 and 103, respectively. And then there’s the late baseball Hall of Famer Leroy “Satchel” Paige, whose five decades of outstanding performance mystified fans and negated the so-called rules of acting your age.
For 22 years, Paige thrilled sold-out crowds at Negro League games. By the time his dream of playing in the Major Leagues came true, he was over 40. When he took the mound for the last time in 1965, he was believed to be 59.
Paige rarely answered questions about his age, but when he did, he’d say something clever, like the now-famous quote: “Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”