I have grey hair. For a variety of reasons I have always resisted the idea of colouring it.
At my previous elementary school I taught with other middle-aged teachers, and my hair colour was a non-issue. But when I transferred five years ago to the Grade 7 and 8 division of a high school, I suddenly felt old. Most teachers of that age group tend to be young - you need lots of energy to keep up with hormonally charged teenagers.
Sitting in the staff room, I felt like a kid invited to the wrong birthday party. None of these people spoke the language of boomers. They weren't dealing with back problems or orthotics for their ugly walking shoes. They trotted around all day in the highest heels imaginable. They weren't concerned with the antics of their university-aged children. They were only a few years removed from being university students themselves.
A friend suggested it might help if I totally changed my hair: Now was the time for a new style, and definitely a new colour. Still, I resisted.
As the year wore on, things got better, thanks in part to the kindness of some of my fellow teachers. A group of young men went out for junk food every Friday and invited me to join them. It made me feel younger to go along for those lunches. On one memorable Friday I offered to drive. I had a Crown Victoria, and they were blown away by the size of the old boat.
"This reminds me of my grandparents' car," one said. "Just like sitting on an old couch at home," another chimed in.
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As I drove along with my four young passengers I felt ancient, as if I were driving my own kids again. At the restaurant we lined up to place our orders. There I was, trying to fit in with my young friends, when my cover was blown. Right after I ordered my burger, the baby-faced cashier asked loudly, "Now, is that with the seniors' discount?" "No," I snapped angrily, shocked at the offer.
Back at school, students usually kept most of their thoughts about my age to themselves. I did, however, have one student who came close.
Once, when I was recounting an event from my childhood, I said something like: "When I was in elementary school … but that was back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth." He looked at me and asked seriously: "Really, Ms. Kot? You were alive then?"
It was about then that I decided to retire from regular teaching.
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Now, in my new role as a supply teacher, this grey hair makes me somewhat of a novelty again as I go from school to school. Most teachers are 20 or 30 years younger than me.
In the primary grades, students are used to thin blondes or brunettes with high-pitched voices. Their unfiltered reactions to me come readily.
One kindergarten student, upon seeing me, said: "You remind me of that TV show - the one about the grandmas." I can only imagine that in his house they watch reruns of The Golden Girls.
In another kindergarten cloakroom, as I struggled to zip 18 four-year-olds into their winter jackets to get to their bus on time, a little boy paused to point at my head.
"Look!" he exclaimed. "What?" I asked. "Your hair!" he said, as if he had discovered insulin, or something really dramatic. The sight of a grey-haired woman sitting on the "zipper" chair to zip up students' coats totally shook his little world.
One girl was taken aback by my alto voice. When I called out her name while taking morning attendance, she asked, "Why do you talk like a dad?" She was even more perplexed by the end of the morning. As I helped her put on her mittens, she concluded her morning observations with: "You speak like a dad, but you sound like a grandma, but you're a teacher."
I assured her that, yes, I was a teacher, I was a mom and not a dad, but one day I hoped to be a grandma.
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It's not just primary kids. As I called out the attendance in a Grade 6 class one morning, a young man in the front row asked me, "Are you Ms. Flansberry's mother? You look just like her."
I had never met Ms. Flansberry, the teacher I was supplying for that day, so I asked another teacher about her; how old was she, anyhow? "Oh, about your age," he replied, "mid-50s or so."
Great. So this misguided boy thought I was a kindly 70-year-old mother who supply taught for her daughter when she was ill.
Some days a part of me says, "You're too old for this." But then I have a fun conversation with a kid, an interesting class discussion or I feel that I may have made a positive difference in a special needs student's day. So I'll stick around for a while. I was at home with my own children for many years, and these last years of supply teaching are my way of making up for that time.
Even though there have been changes over the years, the basics remain. There will always be kids, some soaring while others struggle, some with all the advantages imaginable and others without the basics. Children are our future and for a while, I am happy to be a part of their development. Maybe, just maybe, with this grey hair comes experience and a little wisdom that I can share with them.
Mary Ellen Kot lives in Ottawa.
Illustration by Sara Sniderhan for The Globe and Mail.
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