I turned 64 years old today. It’s the iconic number Paul McCartney prophesized, writing his famous song when he was 16 years old. I believe I was 18 years old when I first heard it. (It would be some eleven years before it was recorded. Just for the record, Paul is older than me. 73 to be exact.) At those young ages, both Paul and I had to dig to imagine what it would be like to actually be 64 years old. We were in the prime of our youth, all possibility and dreams and life beckoning us from ahead. I’m sure he couldn’t have imagined his leap into a fame beyond all human proportion. And on a more modest level, I couldn’t imagine my good fortune in a life that has been blessed with work so rich, rewarding, fun and satisfying and just enough fame to get me around to some 42 countries to teach what I love.
But at 64 years old, part of me is still wondering what I want to be when I grow up. Might I be a jazz musician? A respected author? A speaker at college graduations, one of which will give me that long-awaited honorary doctorate? Goodness knows I’ve stayed faithful both to piano and the writer’s craft, practicing some of both most every day. Is it too late?
The jury is still out on those possibilities, but meanwhile, there is one title I believe I can claim without hesitation or apology. Teacher. Some 300 people around the world sent me Facebook birthday greetings today and many of them used the titles—“Teacher. Dear teacher. Inspired teacher. My teacher.” Such modest popularity (not quite up to Paul McCartney’s standard) did not come from people listening to my music or reading my books. It came from classes and workshops and courses I gave in one place or another. Sometimes they were large groups and I didn’t get to personally connect with the students, sometimes smaller groups and longer periods of time and I remember them when I see them ten years later. Some of these Facebook friends were from amongst the few thousand kids I’ve taught at The San Francisco School over the last forty years. But in any case, it is my work as a teacher that has made the connection, provided some model or affirmation or challenge or new idea or inspiration or just plain fun that was memorable and significant for them. And that means the world to me.
So teacher it is. I’m happy with that. I’m thrilled that I can still get down on the floor with kids and adults and yet more thrilled that I can still get up! (Though a bit slower each year.) I’m pleased that I can still folk dance as we will tonight and play some pretty hot body percussion. My fingers still work at the piano, guitar, banjo, accordion, recorder, xylophone and more, my breath is enough to fill my singing lungs or my bagpipe bag. I can travel 20 hours on a plane and wake up the next jet-lagged morning and teach for six hours. I can still enjoy the tried-and-true material I’ve collected over the years without ever feeling bored or tired by it and still come up with new things that thrill me.
I’m less thrilled with the number 64, but it has not yet closed any doors. Indeed, I feel like I’m at the top of my game. What makes me sad is knowing that it won’t always be so and the years left before that dreaded day comes are fewer each orbit around the sun. Out of 120 people here in retreat, I am literally the oldest person and that’s downright weird. Because as so many my age confess, “I feel like the same young person inside.”
“It’s just a number” say some and there’s some truth in that. But it’s also a number that carries real weight and a mathematical reality that is inescapable. I’m not going to pretend that I carry it lightly. But it’s indeed how I carry that weight that is the question for my age and if today is any indication, it’s with great joy in the opportunity to play, sing, dance, write and yes, teach. As long as my students still need me and the venue still feeds me, I’m a happy camper.
And just for the record, I hope Paul McCartney is too.