For a few minutes only, the warmth of the sun filtered through the leaves and dappled my cheeks. It was as if I had a million tiny diamonds reflected on my skin, And in the moment alone, I felt beautiful.
I picked up my son Brett from school today. When he got in the truck, I could tell that it had been another bad day for him. My heart aches so much for him as he is certain that the rest of his life is going to be as bad as it is right now.
Even though most of his teachers and his counselor have been extremely understanding and have agreed to work with him, he is still suffering the pains of the anxiety and depression, and I have little doubt that almost all of it is caused by school.
When he asked me if his life is always going to be so bad, I just wanted to cradle him in my arms and hold him and never let go. That’s the mom in me talking, but it is also the person in me talking who has been and continues to be terribly unsure of herself, even after all of these years. I know how it feels to believe that life just sucks and that it is never going to get better. I know how it feels to believe that you are worthless. I know how it feels to bear the burden of putting on a good face just to make it through the day.
And because I know these things, it makes me wish that he could just skip these years and arrive at a better point in his life.
I mean, I actually didn’t have a horrible time in high school. I did pretty much whatever I wanted, managed to still get good grades, cheered, and belonged to every club I could join. But the truth is that it was all a big act: my attempts to fit in, to belong. And I always wore this façade, one that reflected someone who knew what she wanted and wouldn’t let anyone stand in her way.
I have to tell you that maintaining that kind of façade really takes its toll. I would move through school at this frenetic pace for weeks and weeks at a time. I would go to all-night study sessions, take my advanced courses, work part time four or five times a week. The pace I set for myself was insane now that I look back on it. But then the inevitable crash would come, and I would get sick and be out of school.
At the time I suspected that I was manic/depressive, as it was called then, but only from the little bit of research that I had done on the subject. Of course, information was not a mouse click away at the time, and research meant pulling books and articles from shelves and reading them on the library’s time. I just knew that I had these extreme highs that would shift on a dime.
My mother, of course, would say things like “snap out of it,” and “you’re just making yourself sad.” Or the best one: “You have your period.” To be fair, though, even though I cast my mother as uncaring, it was not that so much as uninformed. My mother came from a very small town in North Carolina and had no formal education. What she knew about depression was only what she might see in movies. And in her generation, mental illness was a big stigma: People did not talk about such things as it would end up on their permanent record.
Permanent record. You won’t believe how many times I used to hear that. I asked my mom one time where this permanent record was kept. She told me not to be a smartass.
But I digress . . .
My main point is that high school is an unendurable test of strength, will, character, and emotion. Think back to your high school days: Did you love them? Do you look back on them fondly? Bigger question: Would you go back?
No. Absolutely not. No way. Never. Fry some chicken and call me for dinner but N-O.
I was telling Brett that there are some people who never leave high school because it was the best time of their lives. We all know those people, and we usually feel sorry for them.
But in retrospect, there are only a handful of people from my high school days that I still care about. One of them is dead; he died much too young of cancer. One I was married to (no, we were not high school sweethearts, ugh). One is his best friend and was my best friend. One reads my blog regularly and has come in and out of my life for years and has always been in my life because we have known each other much longer than high school. And one is a gay man who lives with his partner up north.
There are other people who I remember fondly, There are moments that I remember fondly. There are incredible adventures that I will never forget. But that was then. I’ve moved on, matured, grown, aged, changed and changed again.
What I was trying to tell Brett was that all of those popular people in high school, the ones who everyone knew and envied, or wanted to be like or hated just a little because they were too popular or too handsome or too privileged—those people are not who they were in high school.
For example, one of the really sad stories from my high school concerns the football star, the quarterback. He was actually a quiet, troubled soul, but few people knew that. Everyone just knew that he could throw a ball. A few years after high school, he killed himself. I won’t even try to surmise why he might have done such a thing. No one can ever know another person’s demons.
Or take some of the beautiful people in high school, the pretty blondes, the handsome jocks: Some of them are on their third marriages. Some are with spouses who they thought would treat them like queens only to find out that their husband is a monster who beats them behind the privacy of their closed door.
Some never made it to 20. They died from drug overdoses, suicide, homicide, illnesses. The ones other people looked down on, the brains, are working for GE, fortune 500 companies as engineers, NASA.
We can never know where life will take us. Most of us would never have guessed that we would be in the places we find ourselves today. Some of us have done much better than we ever hoped. Some of us have done much worse. Fate is fickle, and life is hard.
When we are in high school, everything seems possible at some point. Then nothing seems possible the next day. We go from highs to lows in the blink of an eye. Maybe it’s because of a rejection letter from the college we really wanted. Maybe it’s because we lost a parent or a sibling or a best friend. Maybe it’s because our family’s circumstances changed, and what we once had was taken away. Maybe it’s because we have no support system at home. Maybe it’s because we have no home. Who knows?
All of the petty grievances we had with people in high school seem so small once we move on and have to deal with real world issues: paying the mortgage, working with a boss who is sexist, finding out our spouse is cheating, losing a job because of circumstances beyond our control.
How can breaking up with your one true love at 16 prepare you for such things? It can help you to understand loss, but without a broader context, that loss will seem overwhelming at the time.
How can failing English or Trigonometry not make you feel like a failure? It can’t at the moment, but in a broader context, it can help you to learn how to overcome failure, and as long as no one rubs your nose in that failure, you may be able to deal with it in a way that does not tear at your sense of self.
I’m not trying to diminish all of the emotions, feelings and flailing that a young person in high school endures. It is precisely because of the constant bombardment of things that so many young people take their own lives. As I wrote about in a previous post, being bullied when you are 13 and unable to sort through all of the emotions can cause a young person to snap. And how sad and utterly wasted.
If only there were some way to go inside the heads of these young men and women and let them know that in one year or two or three, their lives will be different. They won’t have to endure humiliation, verbal abuse, or whatever obstacles they face now because they will have the power to get away from that source of pain. If only they can hang on long enough.
I’m not naive. I know that not everyone escapes. I know that for some, the abuse continues. I know that because of economic circumstances, some will never be able to touch even the periphery of their dreams. And some will continue patterns begun in high school that prevent them from ever really maturing emotionally.
Many an alcoholic and drug addict are born in high school. Those bullies grow up to be spouse and child abusers. Some of those who endured constant ridicule grow into people who survive by belittling others because that is all that they know. Others who had to lie and live in secret grow into adults who always keep their true selves hidden. And some who were never able to overcome their childhood fears grow into individuals who continue to be victimized their entire lives.
But there is always hope, and with luck, maybe the sorrows that they endure during this emotional, hormonal, confusing time will help them to become stronger people, or at least give them insight into how they don’t want to raise their own children, the things they should never say or do to their own children because they have the emotional and physical scars to remind them of how much words can hurt.
If high school was the apex of your life, and you still look on it fondly, then good for you. Cherish your memories. But for most of the rest of us, it’s a period that we are glad is in the past. We might go to a reunion to see a few familiar faces and say hello, and probably, we want to gloat a little inwardly at the beauties who have gained weight and the arrogant young men who are now balding and pot-bellied.
Sometimes, revenge is sweet when it is never served at all, when we just let life take care of things. When we just allow fate to dip into the well and present its own version of just rewards.
I wish with all of my heart that the high school years could somehow be avoided, jumped over, or abolished altogether. But that is not reality. As much as I might want to cosset my son and keep him from pain, I know that I have to step back and allow him to finish this particular journey in his life. I can be there to support him, but I cannot bear this burden for him, nor would I want to if I could.
There is an old Spanish proverb that says “The journey is more important than the inn.” Only when we are a little older and a little wiser and a few years removed from the hardest legs of our journey—only then do we begin to understand that life truly is a winding road, filled with twists and turns and hillocks and vales.
Until then, we must endure all of the more arduous legs of our individual journeys and bide our time for the smoother paths. And if we can be patient, sometimes along the way the light will shine through the trees to help us along our paths.
Let me leave you with this beautiful memory of Paul, George and Ringo together live with John in video. More later. Peace.