I’d done the math: In 12 years, I’d be as old as they were. Then we could be friends, equals. We’d stay up all night, blowing past bedtimes. We’d even say swear words, like “stupid.”
It would take a while; I could wait.
But Mom explained that as I got older, my brothers would get older, too. When I was 12, Ben would be 24. When I was 16, Jesse would be 25. I would never catch up, and therefore, I’d be a kid forever.
Even after graduating from college, I still felt like a kid. Without a clear path, job, home or a partner, I started teaching Hebrew at after-school programs in Boston, cobbling together money as I wrote. I felt like a failure. My brothers, then 33 and 30, had jobs, salaries, lives and situations.
As friends and family moved on to engagements and weddings, I’d boomeranged back to childhood, to the spot I’d always held as the kid brother.
The students I taught were ages 5 to 13 — the youngest climbing on couches and scrawling half-remembered letters on scraps; the oldest practicing eye-rolls and complaining about homework.
At school I was Mr. Novak. I was anxious to be taken seriously, and I compensated with all the markers of professionalism. I had rules and worksheets. I would lecture about consequences and hand-raising as the students slumped over their desks, exhausted and bored.
Before class one day, I noticed one of my most difficult students huddled with an iPhone. As I came up to him, he jumped, hiding the phone in his pocket as I saw a familiar face. It was Mario, the oldest of the Mario brothers.
“You can’t get me in trouble,” he said, puffing out his chest. He pointed to a clock. “Three minutes,” he said, and I nodded.
“Okay,” I said. “Three minutes.”
He took the game out slowly, and we talked as he played. It was the original Mario, and he wanted to try the very first one. It was from 1985, and he found it difficult and frustrating.
As he played, he kept talking: about how he didn’t want to come to Hebrew school, and how, as the son of interfaith parents, he wasn’t sure why he should care about being Jewish.
He wasn’t doing well with Mario, either. I reached for the phone as we got closer to the class’s start time.
“One more minute,” he begged, and I shook my head.
“No,” I said. “My turn.”
Suddenly, memories rushed back to me from when I would watch my brothers take turns as Mario and Luigi. The game predated both me and my student, but not my brothers — and I recognized the level he was stuck on as holding a secret. I helped him out of that level and on to the next one.
“You know video games?” he said with a smile stretched across his face. “How old are you?”
The question followed me. Younger students asked if I had kids, or whether I was married. They had trouble understanding me as a single adult: They’d joke about how I should marry other teachers, or they’d draw pictures of me with a new, imagined wife. They sought to complete my adulthood in a way I hadn’t myself.
Soon I learned how to bridge the gap between myself and my students; where authoritarian measures wouldn’t work, creativity did.
I negotiated a rubber-band gun away from a kid by explaining the dramatic principle of Chekhov’s Gun, whereby any weapon introduced is bound to be fired (despite my student’s insistence otherwise).
I taught the Greek notion of tragic fate to another literal-minded student who had trouble accepting a punishment he deemed unfair. When I explained to him that handling unfairness with grace and character was a marker of adulthood, he spent the rest of the year giving me proud, solemn nods instead of tantrums.
In these ways, wisdom from my brothers now found new homes in younger hearts and minds. As I started to tell the stories and lessons they taught me, I realized there was no secret marker of adulthood: The best you could do was to teach it from whatever angle life had given you.
By the end of the year, a 4-year-old at the adjoining preschool invited me to his birthday party.
“I’m turning five,” he said. “How old are you?”
I made a silly face. “I’m also five,” I said, and he howled with laughter.
“No you’re not!” he refuted. “You’re a grown-up!”
For the first time, I felt like one.