Eleven-year-olds, no matter how gifted and intelligent they are, have no concept of age. Oh, they know their parents are older than they are...and their grandparents are older than that. But the idea of just how many years difference there is in ages is lost to them.
Similarly, all of history that occurred before they were born, they believe, took place in a relatively short period of time. The Civil War, which took place a couple of years after the American Revolution, was followed shortly thereafter by the Vietnam War, though World Wars I and II got squished in there somewhere as well. So it is not surprising that they don't question when I tell them that I went to school back in the days when dinosaurs ruled the Earth and that we used to have run quickly so the pterodactyls couldn't swoop down and grab us.
I used to tell my CTY students that I went to school with Teddy Roosevelt and joined him in the charge up San Juan Hill. (Someone once asked me how I settled on TR and I replied that my father had always said he'd gone to school with Abraham Lincoln, so I had to pick someone about thirty years younger.) Saying that we fought in the Spanish-American War in '98 did not raise any objections once we rolled into the 21st century; they never questioned whether it was 1898 or 1998 and just presumed the latter. "Teddy got to be president of the United States and I'm here teaching a writing course," I would say.
Only one student ever questioned the veracity of my statements and said, "Mr. R, if you were really at San Juan Hill,what did you see there?" "Lots of Spaniards with rifles," I replied. She shrugged and said, "Oh, maybe you were there after all."
But I retired the story a few years ago when I was telling the parents of my students that guessing my age becomes something of a game during the session. When I laughingly said, "I tell them I went to school with Teddy Roosevelt," one of the mothers said, "You did?"
As far as actually guessing my age, they have come up with some amusing ideas:
One student in 2006, discovering that my email address was BobRo32, decided that I was either 32 years old or born in 1932. Since the latter would have meant I was 74 at the time, he opted for the former.
Another student thought she could trick me into giving the answer by asking, "Mr R, how old were you when you were 16?"
One year we asked the students to write down how old they thought Lauren and I were. The range for me was between 34 and 70, while Lauren's age (then 23, if I recall) was guessed as anywhere between 17 and 38. So, in one scenario, Lauren, easily young enough to be my daughter, was older than me!
Sometimes the students get so caught up in their own theories about how to figure out my age that they ignore clues that I drop into conversation. When we walk to lunch and some of them lag behind, I will say, "I'm older than any five of you glued together -- why am I walking faster than you are?" It's rare that any of them do that bit of math.
In one of our lessons, we read a number of radio plays that I wrote. The characters are a group of high school seniors and all the stories take place in 1969. "Hmm," Lauren and I will muse, "I wonder if there is any significance to the fact that all these plays are set in the same year." This year, as in most years past, no one caught on.
In the end, they eventually guess my age or I tell them, but the result never seems to be as interesting to them as the game. After all, whether I am 58 or 88 or 132 doesn't mean much to them. It will be many, many years before they reach my age, whatever it is. Indeed, just as all of history seems to have taken place in my lifetime, just as much will happen in theirs.
And when "forever" seems to be the last half hour of a class day that crawls along at a snail's pace, how can they ever conceptualize how long fifty years will take?