A Pretty Penny

Confession: I’m a bit of a coin junkie. Not enough to know a lot about coins, but enough to squirrel away change to sort through later.

That’s exactly what I was doing a couple weeks ago—digging through change to see if any of the coins were worth holding onto. As I dug through a pile of pennies, I marveled at the shiny ones, although they were generally newer and not what I was looking for. And I winced when I found ones covered in who knows what, battered and barely recognizable.

And as I sorted and sifted, I noticed something that I found striking: it wasn’t always easy to guess the year of the coin based on its appearance. I mean, you’d think the new ones would be shiny and the older ones dull, but that wasn’t always the case.

Take these four pennies, for example.

They’re all the same age, almost two decades old. And yet, life has treated them differently. The bottom right one is still quite shiny, relatively unmarred by two decades of being tossed around and changing hands, whereas the years definitely show on the top left one. The other two fall somewhere in between in terms of wear.

It’s interesting to imagine the journeys these coins have taken. It’s likely the two on the top row have had longer journeys. The D they bear denotes minting at the Denver mint, while the other two were created in Philadelphia. Since I grew up in NC and now live in VA, the D coins have always been slightly less common and therefore a more interesting discovery.

All four of these pennies began the same way: freshly minted, shiny, shaped out of the same composition of zinc and copper. But life treated them differently. Their journeys over the past nineteen years have resulted in different appearances. But they all have the same value.

People are much like pennies. Our journeys vary, and the wear-and-tear of life shows on us in unique ways. Like these pennies, hardships sometimes happen to us. But unlike these pennies, we get to make choices.

There is much we can’t control, but we do get to decide how we respond to the nicks and dings from the sharp edges of life. And though the shiny penny may seem ideal, it’s the dirty, dinged-up penny that probably has a better story to tell. It’s a fighter, that penny.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to get to the end of my life still a shiny penny, one that sat safely on a shelf, valuing a pretty surface over the scars of living. I don’t want to run from a fight or cave to the pressures. When I get knocked down, I don’t want to stay down or slink away to safety. I want to get back up, no matter how many times I get knocked down again. I’ll accept those dents. I’ll wear those scars. I won’t hide from the hard times—I’ll fight my way through them.

Because I don’t want to be a pretty penny; I want to be the one with a story to tell.

The Patella Lesson

Patella. It’s not a word you encounter often unless you’re an orthopedic surgeon since it refers to the kneecap. But it’s a word that conjures a specific memory for me.

I was five years old. A kindergartner at a school book fair.

Books, ya’ll. It probably surprises no one that I’ve always loved books. Before I even knew how to read, I used to stare at the pages of a book, fascinated by how adults were able to discern words from the symbols on the page. It seemed like magic to me.

So there I was, wandering between tables of books, colorful and shiny hardcover delights. One book stood out to me, catching my eye. It was about the knee. I remember the detailed graphics and the word patella. I flipped through its pages, fascinated. There was an older girl helping out at that table. She was maybe a fourth grader, but I can’t be sure. (When you’re a kindergartner, kids just a few years older seem like giants, practically adults. All I remember about her was that she was older than my brother, my main frame of reference for older kids.)

She frowned at me and took the book away. “You’re too young for that already.”

Already? I thought. This girl couldn’t even use words correctly and there she was, deciding what I could or couldn’t read. Using my age, she had determined my capabilities.

It was my first memorable encounter with ageism. I didn’t know the term for it then, but I recognized the idea. It’s a concept I’ve encountered again and again throughout my life. People are far too comfortable judging my capabilities based on my age. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard “Oh, you’re young, you don’t understand yet” or “One day you’ll *insert presumably future state here*.”

I’m not pretending there isn’t a certain amount of wisdom that comes with experience. But experience isn’t always tied to age. And you can’t know someone’s capabilities by the date on their birth certificate.

Over time, I started to feel sad for them, the people who made judgements about me based on the number of wrinkles on my face. While they were busy underestimating me, they were doing themselves a disservice too, misjudging the world around them and ruining opportunities to know people.

Because let me tell you, when someone incorrectly determines my capabilities without even knowing me, I’m not particularly inclined to stick around and prove them wrong. I’d rather just move on and save myself the trouble. Who knows how many other people have done the same. The judger is deprived of chances to know some great and interesting humans because they leapt to conclusions based on the surface.

And ageism doesn’t just refer to misjudging the young; it impacts both ends of the spectrum. While people make assumptions about my capabilities because I look young, they also underestimate people because they look old. That creates the fallacy of an ideal range somewhere in the middle, but it’s unlikely people would even agree on what that range is.

The point is, everyone loses. Everyone loses when we make assumptions about other people based on their presumptive age. We look at someone’s face and define their boundaries, their limits. We box them in because of a number. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds.

Patella. I’ve never forgotten that experience. Somehow, even as a five-year-old, I recognized that it was an important lesson. Or maybe I was just annoyed because I wanted to finish the book. (There’s another lesson: don’t take a book away from a bookworm. We will remember it forever.) Either way, it made an impression on me.

Patella, I tell myself, whenever I’m tempted to make an assumption about someone. Patella. Who would’ve thought a kneecap could provide such a memorable lesson?