Why are we so supportive of diversity in friendships, except when it comes to age?
Your best friend – most of us have that person in our life, that “go to person” we count on for support and companionship. Most often, we think of a childhood friend who has been there through all the ups and downs; the college roommate or classmate and the bond that seemed instantaneous, or the trusted colleague at work. The friend is a contemporary, often someone with common interests and naturally similar in age.
In most instances, you don’t see best friends who come from different generations. However, friendship can transcend age. We are only limited by the self-imposed parameters we set. Connecting with another is more about personal qualities and personality rather than commonality of age-graded experiences.
There is quite a spread in age between my male best friend and me. I guess this is somewhat of an understatement considering that we come from very different generations – the baby boomer and millennial generations colliding. This collision, however, while unexpected, has resulted in a real and undeniable connection – a friendship that transcends boundaries and years. In our case, 26 years. Is it possible that a 50-year-old and 24-year-old could be best friends? While unlikely, it is not only possible but is a reality – we are proof of that.
Our story is as unique as is our relationship. As a professor at a college in upstate New York, I have had the opportunity to interact with and teach thousands of students over the years. During this time, I have developed friendships with many students. While I strive to connect with all my students, it is rare to make a lasting and truly meaningful connection that goes beyond the teacher-student relationship. This, however, is the case with the student who became a best friend. What began as a typical teacher-student relationship evolved into a mentoring relationship and has grown into a unique and meaningful friendship.
It was the first day of classes at the start of the Spring semester in 2011. I went over the course syllabus and after class, a student came up to me to introduce himself. He was polite, mature and seemed genuine. At the time, I didn’t think twice about it other than being initially impressed by his initiative. What I didn’t realize at that time was this first meeting would evolve into something special. Fast forward five years to today, and I am proud to call this former student my best male friend. The saying “you never know,” is very real.
While many students do not make the effort or feel comfortable moving beyond the teacher-student relationship, he took it upon himself to connect with me and initiate ongoing discussions on course material as well as issues and activities outside of class. I, of course, reciprocated and our interactions became more frequent and more substantive. Looking back, it is fair to say we connected immediately. Through that first semester, I assumed a mentoring role. After the semester, he left the college and transferred to a four-year college. The mentoring role continued but took a more personal role – one that led to an undeniable friendship. Throughout the next four years, our relationship thrived and expanded through frequent emails, text messages, phone calls and meeting up in person whenever possible.
Our relationship took another step as we collaborated and founded a business venture called Reframing Leadership Consulting, a firm providing speaking and facilitation services on leadership and mentorship in higher education. Fittingly, our focus is on mentoring – where it started for us. And my once protégé is now a mentor for others and, in some ways a mentor to me. In spite of the roles that defined our relationship in class and the age difference, we continue to learn from each other and grow. We are both different people today because of this. The influence is very real and certainly bi-directional. You know the friendship is real when you are there for one another through it all, regardless of location and time.
Understandably, others have a difficult time understanding our relationship and friendship. I am a happily married man with two teenage girls, and he is finishing graduate school and looking to begin a profession in higher education. We are, very much, in different places, yet very similar in many ways. It is highly unusual and incredibly unique. It is hard to attach a label to our relationship as it has so many layers and roles. Those close to us have come to see how important it is for each of us, even if it transcends traditional notions of friendship. This acceptance makes it even more meaningful.
I proudly embrace the title “old man” as I am often called. I reciprocate with referring to him as “punk”. The punk did actually earn an A in my class, in case you were wondering. The old man and the punk – we are indeed an unlikely pair and have an unlikely friendship. Yet, it is very real and very special in spite of the slight 26 year age difference. Friendship can transend age. It really can. It has for us.