My younger cousin just began her journey into high school– the shortest and longest four years of conflicted adolescent development — and it’s caused me to reflect about the realities I have learned since leaving high school, college and every other varying stage of my life.
To start, it wasn’t until years after graduation that I realized just how catastrophically cliche my small-town high school experience really was, and how completely distorted my perception of the world and myself was at that time. There have been a lot of “Wait, you actually did that? I thought that stuff only happened in 80’s movies.” type of comments as I’ve laughed with my post-grad friends about my high school days. Before I elaborate further, I’ll slap a few goofy photos below to better illustrate my point.
Here is a photo of myself and my best friends on an America-themed homecoming float. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a class-decorated trailer that essentially carries girls voted on the senior ‘homecoming queen court’ around the football field or in this case the south side of town….because ‘Merica.
Wait, it gets worse.
Here is a photo of my long-term high school boyfriend (the basketball team captain to complete the blatant cliche) and I canoodling in the midst of our school-spirited peers storming the basketball court after beating the “rival” school on their home court. This is what the whole town did every weekend. The photo was taken by a newspaper photographer and actually published in the town paper…basically, I lived in a really long episode of One Tree Hill.
And to complete the trifecta of cheesiness here’s a photo of me playing Sandy in Grease, the most cliche (and fun) high school musical of all time, well, aside from High School Musical itself.
I could post countless photos from memory lane consisting of everything from field hockey huddles to T-shirts labeling me as “#4’s Girl” — Making present-day feminist me physically cringe — but you get the picture. I had the country-music theme song of a high school experience, and looking back at how important and all-encompassing I felt that world to be, I can’t help but laugh at how little it’s mattered as an adult.
Here’s the truth about high school– it pretty much stays in the past. Everything does.
No one asks you in an interview if you were captain of your high school sports team or held office in student government. And despite my kick-ass performances of You’re the One That I Want during drunken karaoke nights, they don’t ask about any of that either. No one you meet cares if you were popular or an outcast. They don’t know about the mistakes you made or the reputation you obtained. No one that I encounter on a daily basis knows anything about who I was in high school, or even who I was in college for that matter. Life is about continuously starting over. You live and you learn, and then you move on. No one stage defines you and you get to pull the better parts of each into your evolving sense of self.
The other distinct and important reality to note is that your high school identity never has to be who you are as an adult. People as teeny-bopper, mini adults often change when they have to become real adults. A lot of the cool, jock-kids end up falling flat on their faces from a false sense of entitlement. The dorky ‘late bloomers’ can end up super attractive and ambitious. The nerd gets the girl. The fighters make a difference. Some people have babies and stay put, and others hop a plane to move away forever. Smart kids can burnout, and burnouts can level up. You never know what can happen, and reinventing yourself is often what you have to do after any stage of life in order to discover personal happiness.
Not only do people change immediately, but relationships change too. It doesn’t matter how inseparable you and your friends were in school, you usually move away and learn to support each other from a distance. You see each other when you can. Many people disappear from your life all together. Best friends who used to keep your 2AM secrets safe become people who’s photos you comment “Congrats!” on when you see they get engaged via Instagram. Some good relationships evolve into something that’s at first difficult to adjust to, but eventually becomes a life-long understanding and appreciation for those you do still have.
As for me, I encountered a heavy dose of reality. I had to re-prioritize my life. My self-perception and self-image had to do a 180 flip if I was ever going to be a successful and independent woman. I learned to be tougher, more adaptable and less reliant on others for my own happiness. My friendships changed. My goals changed. My obsession with the opinions of others changed. My little One Tree Hill relationship only existed perfectly in my high school bubble, and it turned out that who we were becoming as adults wasn’t nearly as compatible as who were were as young teenagers. That happened with friendships too. The things that killed me in high school, those experiences I swore I’d never get over, became faint memories. We all let go. We don’t carry any grudges. We don’t feel any resentment. They say time and perspective can heal everything, and I honestly believe that to be true. My girlfriends and I laugh now at the situations and boys we fought and cried over. They don’t even exist to us anymore. The only people that do are those we have consciously tried to keep in our lives.
You choose what you take with you in your heart after high school. Everything else can just fade into the past and remain there like a dusty old yearbook in your parent’s garage.
I wanted to write this piece not only for teeny-boppers like my cousin encountering high school at this time, but also for every person feeling like one stage of their life will define them. It won’t. It can’t. That’s the scary, and glorious nature of life. You get to reinvent yourself every single day. You can always start over. You can always find your happiness. People and places don’t make you who you are.
Only you can do that.