I saw a long letter from a man who was still hurting from being an “outsider” at the high school that I attended. It was painful to read about his experience and how awful it had made him feel. He called himself a member of the “fringe” class, and even indicated that he was bullied from time to time. It saddened me to think that such things were happening while I was a student there, mostly because I was unaware of them. I suspect that I missed much of the drama because I was rather shy at the time and kept quietly in tandem with a group of loyal friends with whom I have kept in contact over the five decades since I graduated. I suppose that I was lucky to find them although I have to admit to feeling a great deal of angst and emotional turmoil during those teenage years when I and my classmates were engaged in the age old struggle to find ourselves.
If I learned anything in my years as a teacher of teenagers it is that virtually every young person is riddled with self doubts and bouts of confusion, loneliness and even some depression. The years of transitioning from being a child to attempting to be an adult are wrought with a kind of terror that some manage better than others, but everyone endures. Over the years I learned that even the seemingly beautiful people of the high school world have their moments of darkness. They may smile and collect their awards for leadership, academics and popularity but they too wonder and worry if they will be able to find their way through all of the confusion of launching their lives. There are massive amounts of hormones, immaturity and untethered feelings floating through most high school ecosystems. They have the power of inflicting pain on any given day.
I vividly recall my own struggle with growing up. I felt awkward and unattractive even though photos of me at the time prove that I was not the hideous person that I sometimes thought myself to be. I struggled to hold conversations with the more popular kids which is actually quite amusing because anyone who knows me now might be thinking that once I engage in a conversation it’s difficult to get me to stop talking. I was embarrassed that I did not have a father and that our family struggled financially. My hair seemed then as now to have a will of its own that didn’t include bending to the accepted styles. I was my own worst critic, and in the end it was mostly my own self absorption that prevented me from following my mother’s advice to quit thinking about myself and try reaching out to the other students instead. In other words, I was not so different from most of my peers, but I did not yet realize that all of us were suffering in one way or another.
Getting back with old classmates as well as working with today’s teenagers and having children and grandchildren of my own has shown me that high school is both a glorious and an horrific time in human development. None of us know exactly how to behave when we are teenagers because critical components of our brains are still in the process of forming. We make ourselves a bit crazy and at the same time inadvertently hurt others because we are in a state of uncertainty. Being a teenager is hard work and sometimes leaves scars on our psyches.
I remember all of the questions that swirled through my brain during that awful time. I worried that I would never find love, land a satisfying career, have children, make enough money to support myself, be happy most of the time. Every academic test made me question my intelligence. Every social event made me wonder if I was normal or a freak. If only I had known what I know now I might have made less of a mess of those years, but in reality we can never go back. We just keep moving forward hopefully growing in wisdom.
When I attended my fiftieth high school reunion I saw just how alike all of us had been. I was happy to see that most of us had managed to muddle through life with some success. None of those old high school parameters mattered. We didn’t really care how anybody looked or how much money they had made. It was just great to see everyone, great to be alive. There were no cliques or popular groups that night, only folks now enjoying retirement, grandchildren and all of the really important things in life. Since that evening we continue to get together now and again just to celebrate each other and to hear about the roads we have traveled.
I was somewhat surprised to hear comments from my classmates regarding how they had perceived me back when we all went to school together. Of course there were the reminders that I was a smart girl. I suppose that being valedictorian of the class branded me in a certain way, but I learned over time that it is a fleeting honor that says little about who a person actually will become. It is in a lifetime of learning that we all demonstrate our intellect, and we do so in many different ways. What struck me most was how often people recalled me as someone who was always nice. That was a true compliment, and one of which I have tried very hard to be worthy. Some even thought that I was one of the popular people, a tag that made me laugh and reinforced my belief that none of us really feel entirely comfortable with being a teenager because I never once had seen myself as well liked. As young fold we simply muddle through a trying time and one day hopefully overcome all of the anguish that stalked us and made us feel uncertain about ourselves.
I eventually found someone to love and who loved me. I had children and now brag about grandchildren. I enjoyed a career that provided me with deep insights into human nature and gave me profound purpose and meaning in my life. I have kept many of those same loyal friends who helped me stay sane in high school. I have learned just how wonderful those with whom I had little contact back then have always been as well. All in all I’ve had an extraordinary life that is actually rather ordinary in that it is very much like those of my peers. We have grown in wisdom and age. We are good people who always were that way even when we were confused teenagers. The difference now is that we are no longer afraid of being just who we are, and accepting each other without judgement.
I’m sorry that the man who wrote of how horrid his high school years had been has continued to suffer from the pain of those memories. I wish him well. I also hope that he might understand that we were all in a difficult state of mind, but thankfully we have managed to outgrow our fears and desperations. Overcoming angst is the worst part of growing up. Thankfully most of us find a way to move past it.