I have been watching friends of mine navigate their children’s senior year and upcoming graduations—the excitement, the drama, the heartache of letting your child grow up. My kids are tweens, so I am still a newbie to this phase of parenthood. Watching these young, expectant faces makes me reflect on my own high school experience.
High school can be such a mixed bag. It can be awkwardness, acne and existential crisis; but also the season of enduring friendships, rites of passage, and the intoxicating promise that your life is about to start at any moment.
I wasn’t a social outcast, but I also wasn’t a part of the “in-crowd.” I was academic, but also was on swim team. I was an unabashed choir geek.
And My High School Classmates?
As I grow older and nearer to my 30th reunion, I find myself looking at my classmates with a genuine appreciation for each one of them on so many levels.
As I was mired in my own existential crisis and teenage selfishness, I had no idea what everyone else was going through. Everyone was going through something, even the kids who seemed like they had everything together. Parents divorcing, friendship drama, learning disabilities, illnesses, family money problems. There was so much I never knew. Perhaps this was because teenagers tend not to overshare the real, tough, terrible stuff or perhaps it was because they were too busy living it. And perhaps because I, like many teenagers, was oblivious to the real, tough, terrible stuff.
Over the years, I have slowly learned—in bit and pieces—some of the details about what my classmates went through as teenagers and what they have faced as we have grown into adulthood. Teen pregnancies, cancer, addiction, death of parents, divorces of parents, and divorces of their own marriages. Miscarriage, infertility, job loss, sick children, sick spouses, chronic illness. The list grows longer the older I get.
As I learn each story, I am amazed at how people are basically good, brave and kind.
Everyone has a Story
I have learned that character is a choice, and that adversity can destroy you or leave an indelibly beautiful mark on your life.
I marvel at the jock who became a teen dad and subsequently did an outstanding job raising his son mostly on his own. I now find a hero in a classmate who lost his leg to cancer as a teen and has lived out the most stunning life shaped by that challenge. I treasure the strength of a shy, quiet classmate who was struggling throughout high school with an alcoholic mother and a mostly absent father. I am amazed by the strength of a classmate now in recovery—brave and honest and embracing a healthy, happy life. And I am filled with humble admiration when I learn about my selfless friend who went home after high school every day to take care of a sick mom.
Life is Hard
Not just for some of the people, but for all of the people. The only difference is how people handle the hard knocks, the heartache, the struggle. It creates a vulnerability that can make life so meaningful, and can reveal someone’s character and bravery in a way that nothing else can.
If I were to give advice to these upcoming graduates, I would say this: Look. Look around you.
These faces—those you like and those you don’t—all have a story. Some of it you know. And some of it you don’t. It is so easy to judge. But these faces all have growing up to do, just like you, and they will make their way into the world to face some wonderful things and some terrible things. You might find that some of those kids who you really didn’t like at all have become people who you genuinely admire, not because they have become some big shot or rich or famous, but because they took what life gave them and became really good people. I know that someone might end up feeling the same about your story someday.
This is the beginning of your journey. Anyone can grow, change, evolve—including you. Remember that. These are the people with whom you will remember the same music, the same clothing, the same food and popular trends. These are the people who will understand your “where I was when” story in 30 years. Cherish that. Cherish your shared history. But know that you will grow up and change. Remember that you will not be the same. And neither will they.
This is your beginning.