This is the latest in TMN staff writer Allison Maschoff’s collection of short fiction stories.
The man walked onto the stage with a stiff sort of respectability. He was old, at least 80, and his black suit was at this point more of a charcoal. Just like him, it had seen better days. There was a slight limp to his step and hardly any hair on his head. Wireframe glasses sat perched on his nose and I imagined the lenses being half an inch thick. When he reached the microphone, he cleared his throat.
“Thank you, so much, for having me,” he began, putting so much emphasis on the words “so much” that you could almost hear the commas he no doubt had written on the piece of paper wobbling in his hands. Seriously, this guy was supposed to be an exciting speaker who would convince us to be better humans and grow into mature adults after graduation?
He paused to cough before continuing. “I once sat where you are sitting today. A member of the first graduating class of this prestigious academy, I spent my 17th year taking many of the same classes you are taking now.”
Then something amazing happened, or at least that’s what we all believed: he went off-script. A dazed look came over his face and he said, “Don’t you find that phrase interesting? ‘My 17th year.’ It’s straight out of some old stuffy novel and it’s said as if it’s the simplest sentence in the world. But what does it truly mean? During your 17th year on this planet, you are still 16 years old. Your 17th birthday marks the completion of that year, not its beginning. But the words make us think of a 17-year-old, don’t they?
“The notion gets even more fascinating when you consider that age is a cultural phenomenon. Not in the strictest sense, of course. My biology makes it clear that I am much older than all of you. Rather, I am speaking of the way in which we conceptualize and calculate our age as being a cultural sort of endeavor. Did you know that your age would be different had you been born the exact same day but in South Korea? Allow me to explain.
“In South Korea, a baby is one year old the day it is born. As I understand it, a person’s age does not then continue to be changed on their birthday, but rather on the first day of the new year. Everyone’s age changes at once. January first comes around and every single person in the country, regardless of their actual birthday, adds a candle to the cake, so to speak. Therefore, it is entirely possible that a child born seven days prior could be considered two years old. It’s fascinating, really. Reminds us that time is a law of nature that we have managed to also make our own as humans. Gravity is what it is, the color of the sky is not in our control, but time! Perhaps mankind’s greater feat in subduing the Earth is making time so much our own that many believe it to be wholly manmade.”
Honestly, the auditorium was dead silent. I mean, you could have heard a pin drop. It went from snickers about this place somehow being a “prestigious academy” to mindblown, this-dude-is kind-of-onto-something, never-saw-that-coming silence. I could hear my mom’s voice echoing in my mind, telling me not to judge a book by its cover. This guy might as well have been the walking advertisement.
As if suddenly reminded he was holding it, the man looked down at his paper. He stared at it for a moment before looking up and saying, “Oh, well, where was I? Oh, yes.” Then he looked back up, stared at the crowd in a way that kind of made it feel like he was making eye contact with all of us and none of us, and said, “Smoking is bad for you. We smoked when we were students here, look at us now. Don’t do drugs. Thank you for having me. Goodnight.”
Then he walked away, not acknowledging that it was ten in the morning or that the assembly was supposed to last another thirty minutes, leaving 200 high school juniors and seniors dumbfounded in a way most teachers only dreamed of accomplishing.