“Excuse me, ma’am, do you have the time?” a female adolescent voice chimed near me. Nobody answered the young girl. Well, I thought, the lady she is talking to is obviously rude. “Ma’am?” the girl asked again, this time her voice sounded closer to me.
I froze. Wait a minute, is she talking to ME? But, I’m not a ‘ma’am’.
My head snapped in the girl’s direction. There she was, a teenage girl wearing way more makeup than should be acceptable for someone her age and donning an outfit revealing enough skin to make Mardi Gras attendees blush. Her round, green eyes beamed at me expectantly. They did not blink once. The stare said, Yes, idiot. I mean YOU. I begrudgingly gave her the time, and then she walked away leaving me in a state of anxiety.
The word echoed in my mind like a bad, catchy pop song. It reverberated through every inch of me causing panic. I heard it in the car, in the shower, in my nightmares, at work, everywhere.
How silly is it that all it takes is one seemingly insignificant word to undo the screws of your fragile mental sanity. I used to see that word as a symbol of southern manners. In fact, I used it all the time at my job to refer to any woman older than me. I never stopped to think just how strange that word might make a woman in her 30’s feel. Some customers corrected me when I used the word ‘ma’am’ by asking me to just refer to them by name. I remember in high school, some of my friend’s ‘cool moms’ would ask me to call them by their first name as well. They would flinch at my use of the word ‘ma’am’. I never understood their apprehensiveness until now.
That teenage girl singlehandedly turned me into a ‘ma’am’. Who did she think she was? Her with the poorly mixed makeup and questionable fashion choices. Before she knows it, she too will be a ‘ma’am’ in a younger person’s eyes.
This foreign phenomenon gained momentum rather quickly. All of a sudden, teenage customers at my job called me ‘ma’am’ effortlessly. A glance at their dates of birth proved they were born in the mid-to-late 90’s. I was not even a decade older than them, yet they insisted on using that atrocious term to refer to me. I have since learned to correct these thoughtless teenagers by telling them to refer to me as ‘miss.’ It seems a much more appropriate title for someone my age. They, too, will understand one day.
Then, I started thinking about my age. Those of us born in the late 80’s and very early 90’s are swiftly reaching a quarter of a century. Mine looms later in the year with the threat of a menacing monster. Many of my friends have already passed that milestone, as much as they would like to forget it.
When did this happen? When did we leave behind the days when any mistake we made could be justified by a simple, “You’re young. It’s fine to mess up”? Nowadays, it is more like, “You’re 20-something, and you STILL don’t have your life totally figured out?”
Last thing I remember, I was a careless, metabolically gifted teenager who could apply a Mean Girls quote to nearly any situation. Two of those are no longer true. I am not careless, and to stay thin I have to exercise regularly and watch everything I eat. Slowing metabolisms are part of the aging deal. However, I still use Mean Girls quotes when no other words suffice.
By the way, Mean Girls will turn a decade this April. Yes, the movie which defined our late 80’s/early 90’s generation (don’t lie guys, you know you love it too) is almost ten years old. It is slightly traumatizing to realize that expressions such as: ‘so fetch’, ‘is butter a carb?’, ‘word vomit’, ‘I want my pink shirt back!’, and, my personal favorite, ‘she doesn’t even go here!’ have been around for ten years. If you weren’t feeling old before, I guarantee I just changed that.
Realizing your favorite television shows from when you were younger ceased to exist a decade ago is another painful wakeup call. Boy Meets World ended 14 years ago. A sequel of the show, Girl Meets World, is currently under production and will focus on Cory and Topanga’s teenage daughter. Lizzie McGuire ended 10 years ago, and our beloved Lizzie (one of the few child stars from our generation who didn’t go nuts) is now married and has a child. Hey Arnold! also ended 10 years ago, and we never got to find out if Helga finally got her beloved Football-Head. Dragon Ball Z’s situation remains murky to me, but I will never stop crushing on Goku. (Yes, I just admitted to crushing on a cartoon character. Some of my other cartoon platonic crushes include Darien from Sailor Moon, Hercules, and Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid.)
Yet another terrifying discovery I made, shortly after my realization that I was now a ‘ma’am’, is the fact that the children in my life are all grown up. We all have a younger sibling or cousin who now has a deeper voice, is dealing with acne, or who wears a mask of makeup (like the oh-so-nice girl who broke the news that I am now a ‘ma’am’). When I was a teenager, my little cousin would always listen in on my private phone conversations. He is now himself engaging in such conversations, except those are mainly through text messages. Did I also mention that text messages were a very new concept in our high school years? It was all about calling someone’s house phone and that awkward moment when you had to talk to their parents. This does nothing to increase our comfort in terms of facing our age.
Those of us who are lingering around our quarter lives also deal with anxiety in terms of what the future holds. At this point, we have been out of college for some time. I have found many people from my generation are unable to find jobs in their fields because of the recession. We feel duped. The deal was that all we had to do was go to college to land an amazing job. That deal seems to have gone down the toilet along with several banks’ reputations. Job hunting is now entirely about networking and luck. Yes, a degree obviously helps and is necessary for many fields, but it doesn’t guarantee a job will be found right after graduation.
Despite all these quirks of reaching our quarter lives, there are actually some benefits to this age. We are still young enough to get away with some things, but old enough to know better. We have stopped caring about what others think is ‘cool’ and just focus on what we want to do. We realize now that although partying is fun, sometimes all you need is a bottle of wine and Netflix to have a good night. We are the first generation in which people are often not considered ‘real adults’ until they turn 30; this gives us leeway to make a few more mistakes if we must.
I will not let a word define me. If I do not consider myself a ‘ma’am’ yet, then no one else should either. I could have an entire school bus of teenagers chasing me yelling ‘Ma’am!’ from the windows, and it still wouldn’t change my mind.