A Field Guide to High School
I’m one of those people who really loved High School. Yes, it’s a period of your life rife with insecurity but, for the most part, I thought it was marvelous. I often wonder when I hear people talk about High School as if it was “time served” what made my experience so different. How, even with the ups and downs that inevitably come with adolescence, I really was incredibly happy. Was it just dumb luck? Was I supremely clever? I don’t think so. I know a number of other people (your Dad included) who clearly found a happy route through a time otherwise fraught with strife, so at this the milestone of my 20th High School Reunion (of which I just attended!) I thought I’d attempt to crystalize my own personal “Secret to High School Success”. Take what you will out of it, but understand that no point in your life has to be miserable. Uncomfortable and awkward maybe, but not unhappy. You deserve happiness. So, here are some ways to go about achieving it from ages 14 through 18 (maybe even beyond).
1. FIND YOURSELF A FRIEND. I realize this is easier said than done but all you need is one person who really “gets” you for the world to become infinitely better. I was lucky enough to have a lot of friends in High School but even more blessed to have one special friend who was truly on my page. A person who shared my interests and insecurities and had a strikingly similar outlook on life. There was power and security in being part of a team. We could be keeners without irony joining things like choir and theatre and being enthusiastic without fear of ridicule. We were able to commiserate about the acne only the two of us seemed to have, go to parties as a unit and spend hours on the phone debriefing our emotional turmoils. Despite the fact I was always single and she almost always had a boyfriend, we had each other’s backs. When we were both elected student leaders – a job neither of us were ashamed to admit we wanted – we were able to do that together too. Even now, all these years later, despite time and fall outs and distance, she’s still my person. We don’t live in the same city, we don’t often talk on the phone or email but when we’re together it’s as if no time has passed. Twenty-five years later and she’s still the the one helping me twist our friend’s arms to go out or get involved. Still the two of us taking the chance on something that might be fun. They took a group shot of all the girls from my year who came to the Reunion and it made me laugh because after the requisite smiling shot the photographer asked us to “be crazy” and of the four people who even acknowledged that request…two of them were us. I know letting her into my life not only made High School bearable, it made it a joy.
2. DO THE THINGS YOU ACTUALLY WANT TO DO. If you like chess, join the club. If you want to act, audition for the play. Don’t get caught up in what’s cool or not cool. It’s the doing of the things you enjoy that make your time somewhere enjoyable. If you like it, do it. Plus, you’re more likely to meet the person above if you do. “Birds of a feather…” as Granny says.
3. BE NICE. Not everyone is going to like you, just don’t give them an excuse not to. There are lots of reasons people don’t take to you in High School – jealousy, supposed slights, gossip, assumptions – try not to add to the list. I’ll always remember my last year of High School when I became friends with a girl I had never hung out with before. At one point, in the early stages of our friendship, she said “I can’t believe you’re so nice. I always thought you’d be such a bitch.” I asked why she thought that and she said, “I guess because you’re popular and hang out with who you do. I just assumed it.” It was a eye opener. She thought she knew me but she didn’t and that kind of thing happens all the time. I like to think I never gave anyone a reason to hate me. Even the one person I couldn’t find any common ground with in High School I was genuinely happy to see at the reunion. Despite all our teenage differences, 20 years later, without our preconceived notions getting in the way, our mutual distaste has naturally softened into mutual respect. We might not have liked each other at 18 but we never gave each other any reason to retain that dislike at 38.
4. BE ENTHUSIASTIC. Life is amazing and the more you put into it, the more you’ll get out. The same goes for High School. Invest as much as you can for as long as you have. What you put in will be reflected back. Commitment to something gives you purpose. Purpose gives you drive. Drive keeps you motivated and motivation takes you places.
5. WORK HARD. This might sound like a dismissible maternal cliche, but it’s not. In many ways it’s the same as above point just painted with a scholastic brush. In High School I knew I wanted to attend a specific University and I kept that in mind the whole time I was there. I picked classes I was interested in and focused on getting the best grades I could. I worked my a*# off and it paid off. I chose, as I often say to you, to do the MOST I could rather than the LEAST. I had no interest in simply skating by. If you’re going to do something, you may as well do it well. Frankly that’s an ethic that will serve you well beyond the 12th grade.
As a side note: there’s also a lot less time to get into trouble and fart around making bad decisions when you’re up to your eyeballs in school work and extra curricular and it’s a lot more fun to be on the Dean’s list than the s*^# list. There’s a security in knowing you’ve done your best because, whatever happens, you know the result wasn’t because you could have worked harder. Ask a lot of yourself and deliver. It’s a productive way to go through life.
6. RETAIN PERSPECTIVE. Try and remember there is an entire world outside of High School. Your dramas and trials and tribulations, though seemingly epic, are simply a blip in the story of your life. If you aren’t happy, if you don’t fit in, if you feel weird or different or insecure know that 1. You aren’t alone. Even the coolest of the cool are going through their own s*^# and, 2. It’s going to be over soon. Four years is nothing. You have the rest of your life to find your place or your people, to discover who you are or reinvent yourself. I can honestly say everyone from my year who came to the reunion is an incredibly nice person worthy of respect. We might not have all run in the same circles at 16 but things change. You change. They change. The time between the 9th and 12th grade is negligible on the grand scale. I understand it feels monumental while you’re in it, but it’s just four years at the beginning of a life. A foreshadowing of your adulthood. Take it for what it is, a foundation. A place to learn how to make friends, develop a work ethic and discover who you are or might be interested in being later. It’s a training ground for life but it isn’t your life. It’ll be over in the blink of an eye so you may as well enjoy it while you’re there.
Looking around at the girls at my reunion I was fascinated with the passage of time and the boundaries and walls erected in youth that are able to come down when you’re older. In many ways I was also struck with the positive nature of, the much maligned, social media. None of us showed up at that reunion completely ignorant of the other’s past twenty years. Almost all of us have reconnected in some way on-line. We are aware of each other. What jobs people have. If they have families or spouses. We’re familiar with life events and shared challenges. This point was brought home to me clearly when, during the tour of the school, one of my old classmates (not a close friend mind you) took my arm after a particularly difficult set of stairs. She knew I was sick. She could see I was struggling. She simply put her hand under my arm and helped me navigate the rest of the tour. I was so grateful. Honored and touched to be known in such an intimate way and cared for without question by someone who had no vested interest in me or my feelings.
We don’t know who we’re going to be after High School. What fate will become us as we press forward with our lives. We are unaware of the cards that will be dealt but, even with that uncertainty, we should make the best of the time we have while we’re there. Be our best selves despite the fact that self will probably change. Do the most with what we have until we have more. If High School is a training ground for life, you may as well train as if you’re going for gold….because you are, aren’t you?
I love you baby.
I hope you have the best time in High School but I hope it’s not the best time of your life.
xo me, your mom