Back to School: To teens and young adults)

I don’t know more than you do. I want to start this essay like that because my guess is that you’ve been told that you don’t understand yourself or know about life. I disagree with that. The self you know will change. You do know about life, and your experience. Those experiences will grow and memory may alter your perception of them. All of that is ok. It doesn’t negate or devalue your personhood. I’ve lived more than you have, and that doesn’t mean I know more or am more than you are, it just means I’ve been on this earth longer than you have. I survived middle school and high school and college. And if you’re open to listening, here’s what I’d like to tell you:

  • Unchoose the things that aren’t right for you. Do not allow pride to wrangle you into situations longer than you need to stew there. Quit the clubs that make you miserable. Bow out of relationships and friendships that do not serve you. Change your major. Sometimes, people try to shame you for unchoosing things. Sometimes, we shame ourselves. But unchoosing is a sign of evolution. We see it in nature: a snake sheds its skin, the butterfly departs from the chrysalis. We need to move on and leave things behind. That can be painful and tough, but those are often markers for growth.
  • Rest, take breaks. This grind culture that dares you to prove your competence through exhaustive labor is a scam. Whether it is a nap, taking a semester off of school, taking a mental health day. You deserve a reprieve without having to justify it.
  • Be receptive to your teachers. Not only will the likely be kinder in grading you, but this is how you get mentors. Show up. Be yourself, be open to their feedback. I am alive today because I had a wonderful crop of teachers.
  • For the love of God do NOT believe some idea that these are the best years of your life. Nobody says this about middle school for obvious reasons, but high school was miserable for me and most people I knew. College was way better. College was both fun and incredibly stressful. Those four years were wonderful, and I would never want to do them over. Sometimes, it gets better. It can also get way worse. My whole life blew up at 24. But we get better. Provided we remain open and kind and humble, our coping skills expand to navigate the growing complexities of life.
  • Appearance is a transient and subjective property. It’s currency, not worth. Quit worrying if you’re too fat. Quit worrying if you’re too ugly or ugly at all. Disabuse yourself of this idea that some external authority will validate you. Because if they can validate you, they can take it away. You validate you. You pick you. You champion yourself. You’re pure fire, baby!
  • Focus on finding your people, not a person. If you meet the love of your life in freshman Algebra, good on you! I am thrilled for you! And I’m not telling you not to date people. What I am saying is that concentrating all your emotional support onto one person sets you both up for failure. It takes a community to keep a person afloat. I was twenty five by the time I was in a monogamous relationship, and by the time I got there, I had a vast community of people. I did not emotionally rely on my partner. I wielded coping skills and perspective. And when that ended, my community became the scotch tape keeping me together. I see the boy I crushed on in high school on Facebook, but I have visited my high school best friend in Chicago. I don’t know what happened to some of the dudes I messed around with in college, but best believe my college friends are still my family. Who matters will stay, and I’m grateful I didn’t focus on a a romantic relationship early in my life.
  • Quit breaking your heart trying so hard to be everything you aren’t. I wished desperately to be normal. I’m still not normal. I’m a weirdo– ever emoting, constantly questioning. But owning your weird attracts your kind of people and weeds out those who aren’t for you. Our uniqueness is a selectivity tool if we move with it rather than against it.
  • You do not have to live life in a traditional manner or in the way your parents did or any other way besides what existence rings truest to you.
  • You aren’t going to hear your heroes’ failures. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I had pretty much no friends in middle school and kids called my thunder thighs. I also struggled socially in high school. Boston College rejected me. I was kicked off of my sorority’s executive board in college. It took me five months (a total of 217 job applications, 43 interviews, and over 8,000 traveled) to find a full time job after I graduated college. I’ve cried over unemployed men who were not romantically interested in me. I checked myself into the emergency room almost 1 year ago and later took 3 weeks of unpaid medical leave in order to enroll in intensive therapy. This isn’t a sob story. This is life. None of those things are the most devastating things to happen to me. Don’t be embarrassed when you struggle. It’s going to happen early and often. It isn’t a sign of failure, but one of growth. Ask yourself “what is this teaching me and where do I go from here?” It will take you some place. You will arrive faster if you aren’t comparing yourself to everyone else. Nobody (besides me) is bragging about their struggles and failures and all the embarrassing, sweaty-palmed truth of being a person. Quality people emerge from a lot of bullshit, and that’s ok. Personhood is a process. It’s humbling, embarrassing, a gnarled string of trial and error but you are headed somewhere exquisite and you decide that direction.
  • Everyone is insecure and self-conscious. People are far more fixated on their lives and perspectives than you. Especially in middle school and high school, everyone feels peer pressure and just wants to not be a loser. And then college is about proving that you aren’t the loser you were in high school. And then you’re an adult, and a lot of people are no more secure than they were years earlier.
  • It’s ok to be lonely. You’re going to be lonely a lot. A large part of being alive is being lonely together, and the only way I see out of that is to be open and vulnerable. It’s risky but we can only connect if we remove our shields.
  • That test is less important than your mental health. Your coursework does not define you. You are not what you do and achieve. You are more than a pounding inquiry, “am I good enough? am I good enough?” You exist. That makes you a thousand times enough. You exist even if all the accolades rust and disintegrate, you are still here. And that is all that matters: not the test or how cool or are or the stuff you own. And you can covet those things. Just want yourself first.
  • Nobody cares about your ACT score or if you graduated with latin honors. Work hard, but know that most of this crap isn’t super important. Focus on experiences. Focus on building the best, truest, vivid you and trust that such efforts will propel you further than traditional “achievements”.
  • You will be ok. Objectively, as an adult woman, I see see seventeen (senior year of high school) as the worst year of my life– the kind where my existence collapsed inside of itself and being a minor rendered me helpless beneath the debris. And I survived. And it was ok. I once got a 17% on an Algebra II quiz junior year of high school, and it was ok. I still more than passed the class, graduated high school with a solid GPA, graduated college magna cum laude, got a job. You feel like your world is ending a lot as a teen. That’s normal, and I don’t think it makes you dramatic. It’s like you have four puzzle pieces so you can’t grasp the image of the whole puzzle. I still don’t have my whole puzzle down, but a few more pieces are coming together.
  • Say what you mean. Tell people how you feel. Cool is for jackasses. I only want to be where the authenticity is.
  • There will come a day when you pass the people who bullied you (either digitally or in the real world) and the sight of them no longer surges lightening in your bloodstream. When they are radically average people whose sight doesn’t provoke you anymore. There will come a day when you cheer on all the women you went to middle school, high school, and college with because growing up a girl is hard. And here you all are– after the boy drama and burn books and braces– sending them love and support, whispering “we made it!

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