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?

She’s more

If you saw this woman at the Olympic games, what would you think?

Anna Sofia BothaAns Botha (Lloyd Burnard)

You’d probably think she was someone’s grandmother, right? And you wouldn’t be wrong. This 74-year-old woman is, in fact, a grandmother. Even a great-grandmother.

And that’s what officials saw as they turned her away from restricted areas, likely assuming she was confused, an elderly lady misdirected on the way to her seat.

Yes, she’s a great-grandmother. But that’s not all she is.

Anna Sofia Botha (also known as Tannie Ans Botha) was in the stands last Sunday, watching South African runner Wayde van Niekerk win a gold medal and smash a world record no one had been able to touch for 17 years. She was beaming with pride.

Because she’s his coach.

A Namibian who started coaching in 1968, Botha is described by her athletes as an “amazing woman,” a woman who sees her athletes as her children, looking after them like family. (You can read more about her here and here.)

So much of an athlete’s ability can be attributed to the combination of intense hard work and genetics, but undoubtedly a portion of their success is due to the work of their coach, the person who recognized their potential and encourages their abilities, enabling an athlete to make the journey from good to great.

But until van Niekerk’s incredible finish and subsequent publicity, when people looked at Anna Sofia Botha, they saw a great-grandmother, an older lady at the Olympics as a spectator, instead of the coach of a future gold medalist.

Just like when a commentator looked at a female gymnast and saw a girl writing in her diary instead of a world class athlete making notes on her performance.

Or when another commentator looked at a successful swimmer and saw someone who should’ve made a different choice about her career instead of an intelligent woman choosing the future she wanted.

But we’re humans—we make assumptions about a person the moment we meet them. Our subconscious biases kick in and we reach conclusions, sometimes before the other person has even said a word. It saves us time; it keeps us from having to invest mental energy in a stranger.

But sometimes those psychological shortcuts lead us to underestimate talented human beings, revealing unfair judgements we refuse to release, even when we encounter opposing evidence (like Botha’s official credentials that should’ve allowed her access to restricted areas).

No matter how we try to reduce them to a simple identity, people are more—more than what we see, more than our biased assumptions. And until we acknowledge that reality and are willing to question our assumptions, coaches of Olympic champions will keep being turned away at the door.