I have been watching a lot of NBA basketball lately, mainly to try to relax at the end of a hectic day. I’m following my two hometown teams: the Lakers for the drama; and the Clippers for their high flying, high energy entertainment. The Lakers, according to those in the know (and anyone else with eyes and half a brain), will not go far in the playoffs with an aging team and an injured force of nature that was Kobe Bryant before tearing up his Achilles tendon. The Clippers are a younger, more athletic team, and I root for them because they get no respect and are considered the underdog to win the conference, much less the championship after so many years of irrelevancy.
American culture has an age bias, and the Lakers are an example of what happens in the real world. Sports writers and fans bemoan the team’s creaky old-timers and their lack of athleticism. Never mind that combined, the team’s veterans bring thousands of games played to the table. These are crafty athletes who must rely on experience to try to keep up with the young guns in the league. Will this be enough to carry them to a championship? As I write this, they are about to lose their second playoff game in a row to the San Antonio Spurs. If only they could find the right combination of experience and youth the way Kareem Abdul Jabbar, a wily veteran, was invigorated by the young rookie Earvin “Magic” Johnson all those years ago. Still, I’d hate to see the Lakers’ failure this season attributed to the players being too old; age does not breed irrelevancy, and it would help if the team had some decent coaching, but that is another essay altogether.
The more important question is, why does society favor the young and energetic over the older, wiser veteran?
In teaching, the veteran used to be valued. Wisdom and experience counted for something in the administrative office and in the classroom. Students responded differently to an experienced teacher as opposed to a fresh college graduate who was closer to the students’ age.
The paradigm has shifted. Principals are looking for the young, energetic teacher. They can pay these newly minted teachers less, and they can utilize their abundant energy and lack of political knowledge to spread them oh-so-thin across the school. Teach five classes, moderate a club, plan activities, coach a team, and stand on the playground for thirty minutes in all kinds of weather playing traffic cop when the school day ends, all for a salary half of what the school must pay a veteran. No problem. More experienced teachers know their place is in the classroom teaching, grading papers, planning lessons, providing extra tutoring, and working to educate students to the best of their ability. Is it really the best use of teachers to have them stand on the playground directing traffic in a bright orange vest? Veterans know it’s not.
Often, the extra tasks shoveled on teachers involve hours of unpaid labor. My wife, a middle school teacher, has been up to the wee hours of the morning over the last two weeks completing the school’s yearbook by the publication deadline. The yearbook at one point was cancelled due to lack of funds, but was revived twenty days before the final deadline. She put in 18-20 hour days trying to complete the project and keep her sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students learning and moving forward in their language arts and religion curricula. How did she make her deadline and keep all the plates spinning? She is a veteran teacher with 27 years of experience in first grade to college classrooms. Could a newbie pull this off? Possibly, but is a less experienced teacher able to combine wisdom and quick thinking to create an action plan where tasks are completed without her teaching being diminished? I know when I was a rookie, I pulled all-nighters to get things done and before I learned the ropes through trial and error and an excellent mentor, my teaching suffered. Eventually, I learned techniques to conserve energy for what’s important—teaching—while maintaining the integrity of my preparation and classroom instruction. And that mentor teacher who taught me so well? Forty years in the classroom!
So when I hear that this 39 year old point guard can no longer do the miraculous things he used to do, when I hear people doubt that a 35 year old former phenom may not come back from a season-ending injury, or that a veteran shooter may not have anything left in the tank, I get defensive. Don’t discount wisdom and experience. And don’t forget determination. Tennyson said it best: “We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; / One equal temper of heroic hearts, / Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
I love the Clippers because they are young and athletic and fun to watch. They soar high and dunk with authority. But it is interesting to note that the team’s second unit often opens a wider scoring margin and plays better at times than the starters. Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom, Grant Hill, Jamal Crawford, Ronnie Turiaf: all veteran players with years of experience. And they’re damn good. Because of them, this might be the Clippers’ year.
When I was a younger man, I once saw a senior citizen park his car in a mall parking lot on a slight incline. He forgot to set the parking brake, so as he walked to the store the car began to roll. I rushed over and stopped the car with my body, saving a row of parked cars from damage. As a bystander fetched the man from the store, I congratulated my 25 year old self on my heroism. The man returned and quickly backed the car into his former space and this time, he set the brake.
“That was really stupid,” I said in a tone of grating self-righteousness. “You could have caused a lot of damage.”
The man stared at me. “Youngster, I’ve lived longer than you, and I’ve already forgotten things you have yet to learn. I do know this. Only an idiot jumps in front of a moving car to stop it with his body. Sure, I would have hit a few cars, but that’s what insurance is for. No policy can restore your life. Keep that in mind.”
The wisdom of the years, indeed.