I used to joke that if I met my freshman self, I would punch her in the face — for being stupid, for being naive, for not taking care of myself, for scraping my knees and then apologizing to the cement. She was loud and bright, and she had a fleeting innocent confidence that I’ll never hold again. For some god-knows-what reason, she thought it was cool to recite Anne Boleyn’s actual execution speech (why did you memorize that?) when helping Mr. Morris demonstrate to a class of freshmen and sophomores just how amicably Henry VIII parted with his second wife. She meant the best, gave her own freely, and trusted that everyone she met did the same.
I’m finishing up my senior year right now, and by the time this is published, I’ll be on my way out. Speedwalking, if I’m feeling polite, but most likely sprinting.
In the grand scheme of life and the world and the inevitable death of the universe, four years doesn’t sound significant. It’s nothing in a realistic survey of time as a whole, sure, but I think we do every child a disservice by acting as if high school isn’t one of the most defining parts of one’s life. I think we also do ourselves a disservice by attacking our younger selves the way we so often do — because we were stupid, because we were awkward, because we were naive. Because, because, because.
So let me try this again.
Dear Freshman Self,
Just so you know, you mess up. A lot. You’re going to hate yourself for it.
Just so you know, all of it passes. Most of it, at least.
Things are bad. And they get worse — that’s just how life tends to go. But they get better, too. I’m telling you this not as a dramatic background music infomercial type encouragement, but as a simple statement. It gets better, and it gets worse, and then it gets better again. You have had more minor breakdowns than I can count on one hand (or maybe two, and yes, I do still have all ten fingers) and your senior year starts with a bang of one. Heads up, it sucks.
Heads up, you have your first real fall and your first real winter and everything feels real for the first time and you’re so overwhelmed by how beautiful everything is when you feel like you’re actually alive.
I can’t write out everything you need to learn, because frankly, we have a limited amount of space in this issue and we have a deadline. But if I had to give you five things, if I somehow could, then here you are.
- High school isn’t going to be the best four years of your life. It isn’t going to be everything you hope for it to be or expect it to be. High school is going to host some of the very worst years of your life, but also the beginnings of some of the very best parts, and that’s all that you really need.
- It’s okay to be scared. It’s okay to be terrified. Of that test, of wearing something new, of raising your voice, of getting up and going out in the morning, of that club interview, of that group hangout, of anything and everything. You learn to be brave by being scared first. You don’t stop being scared, but you learn to live with it. Being a little bit scared is good for you. It keeps you safe.
- Just writing out ‘grades aren’t everything’ makes me cringe a bit, because there’s no way to phrase it that isn’t incredibly banal. But the slopes of A’s and B’s don’t fill in the hollows under your eyes. That low B in the class you were struggling in isn’t worth all the tears and the hairs you’ll rip from your own eyes and face. Those few points of extra credit won’t do you more good in the long run than letting yourself stop and breathe and just lie in the quiet for a while. A strong work ethic is important. A strong work ethic shouldn’t mean that you sacrifice your health for more points in a class or on an exam.
- ‘No’ is the most powerful, beautiful word you’ll ever have. Learn to say no and then you can do anything. It makes room for all of the important ‘yes’s you have to give.
- You’re a lot smarter and stronger than you think. You don’t feel it, and you won’t for a long time, but you’re reading this, which means that I’m writing it. You’ll make it. You will.
I used to joke that if I met my freshman self, I would punch her in the face. I was wrong.
I’d hug you, because patience and trust is what you need most.