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, y’all. 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?


  1. Laurie Tomlinson
    Apr 11, 2017 @ 16:43:23

    Halee Matthews: proving people wrong since age five. Maybe since birth would be more accurate.

    I know your feelings on ageism and millennials. Pshhhh. But I just had a conversation with a woman who is going back to school and competing with women half her age for slots. Discouraged. I guess– you’re right — it happens at every age.


    • halee
      Apr 11, 2017 @ 17:29:37

      <3 And I bet ageism is annoying at every age. We have such expectations for different ages and what's appropriate. The appropriate age to be in college. How many years a person should work before they should be in management. When they should retire. It gets a bit ridiculous at times. Some of the people who contributed most to my courses in both undergrad and grad school were "non-traditional" students. I've found that people who deviate from the norm/average of a group in whatever way tend to work harder because they have more to prove. Best of luck to your friend!


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