Every year, I try to take a little time to put myself in the shoes of my students. Not literally, as 10+ years, a job where I’m on my feet for 8 hours at a time, and a post-fractured foot mean that I’m well on my way to a nice, fashionable pair of orthopedic shoes. I try to take some time to remember what it was like walking in to high school the first time, the hundredth time, the last time, and all the times in between. I go back and look at old pictures. Ah to be young again, taking duck faced selfies on a digital camera. I recognize that all of my babysitting earnings went to making sure I had yet another shirt that said “Hollister” across it. I made some regrettable fashion choices that thanks to the rise of Facebook during my time in high school, will be immortalized forever. Bless my parents for always letting me march to my own beat, but maybe they could have suggested that I either choose to wear a dress or jeans but maybe not both at the same time? I read through old journals that I used to keep, that are mostly lyrics from Dashboard Confessional and Taylor Swift songs. I remember the highs and lows, the good times and the bad times, feeling on top of the world and feeling like I didn’t quite belong in the world. I remember feeling invincible and terrified of the future all at once.
I feel especially nostalgic this year. I’ve gone back to high school every year for the past five years as a math teacher. I usually have a lot of the same fears and feelings. What if none of my friends have my lunch? What if I trip and fall in front of everyone? What if I don’t know what I’m doing? After five years of teaching in another state, I’ll be walking in to the high school I graduated from. Instead of a locker, I have my very own classroom. I’ll be colleagues with so many of the teachers who inspired me to teach in the first place. A new adventure in an old, familiar place. I can’t help but think back to who I was when I first stepped foot in the building in 2005, who I was when I walked across the stage in 2009, and who I’ve become over the past almost 10 years. I’m not who I was, but I’m connected to that youngin’ for good. I wouldn’t be who I am if it was not for who I was.
I spend this time reflecting because it helps me walk in to a classroom and face my teenagers. It helps me be more patient and compassionate. It helps me remember that as much as I think it should be, my class is most likely not their top priority. It helps me remember that I have an opportunity to help them through a weird stage of life because I’ve been there before. It’s also good for me. I have a feeling 37 year old me will look back and have some wisdom for 17 and 27 year old me. I don’t believe one bit in living in the past, but I do believe that the past can help guide your future. So here is what 27 year old me would tell seventeen year old me:
- Love your family. And not like Instagram post love your family, but truly love them fiercely and embrace every chance you have to spend time with them. Love them when they make you angry. Love them when they annoy you. Love them when they just don’t understand. Maybe your parents will live to 100 or maybe you’ll lose them tomorrow. You only get so much time living under the same roof as your parents and siblings. Embrace those silly moments in the living room, stop grabbing food off the table on your way out the door instead of sitting down to talk with them, and if your mom wants to spend her whole Saturday at your speech tournament because she wants to support you, let her.
- Never say never. I spent four years of high school saying I would never, ever return. Well, joke is on me, because after moving three hours away for school and work, I eventually wanted nothing more than to return home. Life might take you all sorts of places with all sorts of people in your life. You might come back, you might never leave, you might never come back. That’s your journey and that’s fine. But always recognize that you were shaped by where you’re from and it’ll never leave you
- Love the people in your life. You know that girl who kind of annoys you? She might be the person who shows up in your twenties to pick you up off the floor at the lowest point of your life and is by your side celebrating all the best things with you. You know those friends who you can’t imagine life without and you are convinced you’ll be the best of friends forever? You might run into in to them at the grocery store and realize you don’t have that much in common anymore. There are people you haven’t even met yet that will fill voids in your life you didn’t know you had until they walked in to your life.
- Keep all the doors open to you. At seventeen, I was starting to think that maybe I would become a teacher. I was also thinking that I still might get my own Disney Channel show, become a stay-at-home dog mom, own my own business, meet a prince who falls in love with me and makes me a real life princess, or rule the corporate world. Even now with a college degree, a few years of experience, and a deep love for my job, I have no idea what I might be in the future. My education is what has always kept doors open for me. You might not feel like what you are learning in school is important right now, but you should embrace all that you are learning knowing that it could keep a door open for you. I’m a math teacher. If I had a nickel for every time a student asked me when they would need to know what I’m teaching, I could buy that lighthouse and open my dream dog-friendly coffee shop/bookstore/yoga studio/bed and breakfast. None of us know what the future holds and I’m going to try my darnedest to make sure you’re prepared for it.
- Know that the things that make you weird now will make you cool later. Your obscure taste in music, the ability to march to your own beat, your desire to spend time alone when it feels like you are supposed to always be surrounded by people. Cool also eventually becomes way less about what others think about you and way more about what you think of yourself. Things might also no longer be referred to as “cool” but rather “on fleek.” You’ll eventually stop trying to keep up.
- You will never know what the future holds, and that’s okay! It feels really scary and overwhelming right now. Let me tell you, you will never know! That part doesn’t go away. But eventually, you start to get used to it, and with enough practice, you might even start to embrace it! Once March hits, I usually lose my lunch, prep, and all free time before and after school to what I lovingly refer to as “Seniors Sobbing in My Classroom” season. The big, bad, rule the school seniors that roamed the halls in September have suddenly become frazzled walking, talking, balls of emotion. I personally very vividly remember removing my fake nails post prom and losing it on my poor mom because I was convinced that my future roommate would try to kill me, my friends and family back home would all forget about me, no one in college would like me, and I would fail out of all of my classes, never find a job I loved, and be alone forever. Teenage me definitely deserved that Mid-Illini Dramatic Duet Acting Champion award I received.
- Nothing is permanent. Well, except for if you make a major destructive decision or the tattoos that people decide they must have on their 18th birthday. Make a choice, go with it, and if it’s not what you want it to be, then reroute yourself. Who you were is not who you are. If you were not the person you want to be today, remember that tomorrow can be a fresh start.
- Be useful and be kind. I saw an interview with Barack Obama where he shared that this was the advice he gave his daughters as they were figuring out what to do with their lives. So simple and yet so profound. My kiddos frequently come to me and ask me what they should do with their lives. I can’t answer that question. They feel pulled in a thousand directions. School? Work? Military? Whatever you do, be useful and be kind. If at the end of the day you’ve done that, you’ve done good. Don’t forget to also be kind to yourself.
- Make good choices. I often say goodbye to my students with this. Now I know I teach humans (and teenage humans at that). There are going to be not great choices throughout your life. That’s the fastest way to learn! However, there are not good choices that can change your life forever. You are going to make bad choices, both deliberately and accidentally. Embrace them, learn from them, and try to make better choices next time.
- Listen to people who want what is best for you. Knowing seventeen year old me, she probably would not have listened to any of this. Recognize that it might go in one ear and out the other. Recognize that there are some things that only time and experience can teach you, and that’s okay. But when you learn those things, carry them with you. Remember that you are who you are because of who you were.