On High School: What I’d Tell Myself If I Could Do It All Again

This post has also been published by The Odyssey!

May 28th 2015

If keeping a 4.0 requires you to lower the rigor of your classes, don’t. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get good grades, but you definitely shouldn’t compromise your learning opportunities just to maintain a number.

There will always be people who seem to have or get more than you. It’s because the world is full to bursting with all kinds of talent and sometimes it’s hard to recognize all of it. It’s not fair, but it’s true. Don’t get down on yourself.

There aren’t scholarships for making the most people smile or for being nice to the substitute teacher or for only saying positive things about your peers, but these things are infinitely more important than your test scores and GPA. Remember that.

No one really cares about prom queen ten years down the road, or honestly even just a month later. Popularity is an illusion – everyone has something to offer, and no one is the end-all-be-all of perfection.

Jealousy will hurt you more than anything anyone can do to you. It’s hard to overcome it, but try to realize that you don’t know enough to judge who deserves what. Someone is always better off than you, but someone is always less fortunate, too.

Get to know your teachers beyond how they grade your work or insist on teaching class up until the second the bell rings. They’re human too – vast, fascinating, flawed, wonderful. They have stories to tell far beyond the breadth of their subjects and it’s these stories that you really ought to learn.

Don’t run away when you mess up. Learn to turn and face your mistakes head on, because it’s better to fix them all at once than it is to let them shadow you for days or months or years. Be the person who apologizes right away instead of the one who slinks off into a corner to hide.

You’re going to cry, and you’re going to make people cry. It might be because of a boy or a girl or something silly like a failed group project, or it might be because your life is literally crashing down around you. The reason doesn’t matter so much as the recovery, and the recovery doesn’t matter nearly as much as those who help you with it.

There will be favorites in high school and you may not be one of them. There will be kids who don’t even have to work to get the same things you have to fight so hard for. Don’t think that this is your fault or that it makes you any less of an important member of your school; people are flawed, sometimes even those in charge. Be anything but bitter. Be understanding.

No one cares about your ACT score once you’re actually in college. It may feel amazing to score highly or awful to scrape the barrel, but it doesn’t matter to anybody else nearly as much as it matters to you. This is both good and bad – accept it.

Participate in every damn thing you can fit into your schedule, because the people you meet and the friendships you build and the experiences you gain are worth so much more than the time you invest in them. Sing your heart out on your school song, paint your face for homecoming, stop being afraid of what you look like or what people think. Just jump in. You only get this once.

Stay home with your parents once in a while. Talk to them. Vent to them. Listen to what they have to say. While you are growing up, they are growing old. It’s easy to forget how important they are in the rush of these four years, but remember that they are the biggest thing you’ll be leaving behind.

You are not better than anybody. I don’t care if you run faster or score higher or sing more on key. You are not better, you are different. You will surpass your peers in some areas and fall far behind in others and you need to be okay with this.

The first time you really struggle in a class, it will feel awful. It will feel useless and impossible and you will become convinced that you’re the stupidest person to ever walk your school’s hallways. Remember that none of these things are true. The truth is that sometimes it seems like not even the hardest work pays off like you want it to, but you can’t forget the value of your effort.

Watch your words, always. You never know who is around you or who they know or what kind of horrible day they might be having. Never say anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable justifying to someone’s face, and if you do, don’t wait to acknowledge it and try to make it right.

First impressions will kill you. They’re impossible to shake and you’re going to have to deal with whatever initial thoughts popped into someone’s head regarding you for the next four years. You might never fully change someone’s mind, but you can still always focus on being who you really want people to perceive.

This is it. You don’t get to come back and slink into your old homeroom desk like it’s a second home ever again after you graduate. You’re going to hate high school, and you’re going to love it. There will be days you can’t wait to graduate and nights where you want everything to freeze – but it won’t. Know this. Learn to soak up every single experience. You are choosing who you are and who you will be day in and day out. This is a beginning… but it, too, is going to come to an end.

Photo credits to the Wausau Daily Herald.

Owning Confidence

I have a bad habit of picking at the skin around my fingers. An undesirable response to both anxiety and boredom, I can easily pull at a hangnail throughout an entire lecture without thinking twice about it.

It’s been pretty embarrassing over the years to have fingers covered in bandaids or showing raw skin. It used to be that whenever someone asked “what did you do to your finger?” I’d feel compelled to make up some excuse, like burning it on my hair straightener or getting a paper cut. I didn’t want people to know that it was something I was doing to myself; I felt weird, gross, and awkward. (A valid question is why I don’t just kick the habit once and for all… but that’s a topic for another reflection).

As I got older and realized the importance of openly owning my mistakes and flaws, I started answering honestly. Instead of sheepishly lying about my shutting my finger in a door, I would just say “oh, I have a bad habit of picking at my fingernails,” like it was no big deal. After all, it really isn’t – there are far worse things in which I could engage.

Every time I own this part of myself, I feel stronger. I feel capable. It’s such a little thing, but I feel overwhelmingly that if I’m willing to present my quirks in an honest way, they become less of an elephant in the room and more of a piece of everyday information. I’ve come to believe that attempting to hide parts of yourself only makes them more evident; the awkwardness of someone knowing you’re lying is far worse than the slightly weird look you might get if you tell the truth. Sure, I’m not proud of all of my bad habits – but I do feel proud when I take responsibility for them.

My journey to overcoming my insecurities has been strongly rooted in this idea of self-ownership. I touched on this in another piece, but the idea is worth reiterating: I don’t have to justify myself to anyone. I don’t have to explain every last part of my being. I find immense value in explaining my actions and thought processes, but even so, I don’t feel that I have to. If I don’t want to make the world understand why I pick at my fingers, I don’t need to. If I don’t want to explain why I’m so insecure, I don’t need to. My feelings, emotions, and qualities are valid – whether I justify them to the world or not.

I’ve become immensely more confident in the past years as I’ve processed the concept of owning my life. The truth is that I am flawed and broken and a million other awful things, but I don’t owe anyone an explanation for these traits. I absolutely owe myself the effort to continuously improve – but I don’t owe the people around me a justification for why improvement is still needed.

Countless experiences have molded me into who I am today and countless experiences will continue to do so. I am capable of taking control of my path in life, of changing the things I don’t like, of becoming a better person each and every day. But in order to be someone greater in the future, I have to first take ownership of who I am right now.

Fear of Feedback

Recently an article I wrote about my summer internship experience garnered over three thousand shares on social media as it was passed around an online community of journalists. Though this may not seem like expansive reach in the grand scheme of the internet, it was by far the largest audience any of my pieces had ever received.

My mom, being the overwhelmingly encouraging woman that she is, texted me a variety screenshots of posts made by strangers where they shared and complimented my perspective. I realized while sifting through their comments that though I should have felt thrilled with the magnitude of responses, I was actually quite terrified. My stomach turned as I read through share after share, fearing that my next scroll down the screen would reveal a horrible truth: that someone hated what I had to say.

I felt silly being surrounded by such a multitude of positive feedback and still fearing potential negativity. I wrote that particular piece with the best intentions and in the most honest way possible, and I knew I could be proud of my work. I did not claim to know everything but instead sought to turn my summer experience into a learning opportunity for anyone who would take the time to read it. I felt good about what I had written… so why did I feel so scared when the world began passing it around?

Part of it is who I am. I’m vastly insecure, extremely uncomfortable with conflict, and I desperately want to be well-liked. These are not necessarily desirable traits, but they are deeply rooted facets of my being. I grew up receiving almost exclusively positive feedback from authority figures and developed a genuine fear of making a mistake. Though the rational part of me understands that mistakes are important learning opportunities, the part of me powered by feelings tries to avoid failing in any way at pretty much all costs.

I was so scared that someone would find an error when my article began to be shared (and indeed, a few people did). I wrote my reflection after only three months in a news room and knew that I couldn’t be expected to get every single fact right. The message of my piece was supposed to transcend minute details – yet I still stressed over every last thing that could potentially be corrected. Fear of my words being dissected and taken out of context overshadowed my joy that so many people were relating to my work. I found this fact immensely sad.

While I will be the first to acknowledge that my sometimes paper-thin skin makes receiving criticism hard, I also believe part of my fear stemmed from valid observations of society as a whole. When something is put in the spotlight it’s extremely easy to pick it apart. Statistically it makes sense that the wider something reaches, the more varying the responses to it will be – but I also think that we as a society often focus too much on the negatives.

I feared cruel responses to my work because I have witnessed cruel responses to the work of others. In fact, I have sometimes been the one supplying those cruel responses. I am not proud of it, but it’s easy to fixate on one component of a thing that you dislike as opposed to acknowledging the intent or impact of the thing as a whole. For me personally, I think part of it is jealousy: when I see someone or something being very successful (in this case garnering a wide social media reach) sometimes I yearn to find flaws in it just to bring it back down to my level in my mind. It’s warped logic, but I notice it all the time.

The biggest thing I thought about while all of these thoughts and fears were swimming in my head was how to fix my mindset. I was saddened that my knotting stomach distracted from the pride of having my work shared, and in the future I want to be much more joy-centric. I know I can’t suddenly make society more positive… but there are some things I can do.

First, I can alter the way I personally interact with the world, especially on social media. I can consciously strive to be more positive in my observations and responses, and when I do give feedback, I can make sure it’s the kind I would feel comfortable and valued receiving. Though it’s cliched, it’s true: change starts with one person.

Second, I can work to grow my own confidence. This is an endeavor I’ve been pursuing for a while and I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s a constant work in progress. I doubt myself to the point that it sometimes squashes my creativity, and while it’s important to be self-aware of your flaws, I definitely take it too far. At the end of the day I need to remind myself that my feelings and thoughts are valid and that I am allowed to have errors to my name. After all, your mistakes don’t define you – the way you react to them does.

Third, I can actively try to ask for feedback and respond maturely. My natural inclination is to curl up in a ball when someone says something negative about me, but I need to make an effort to hear them out and evaluate their statements. Though some criticisms (especially on social media) are unnecessarily harsh, many pieces of feedback can be extremely valuable to the growing process. I can’t improve myself all on my own, and sometimes I’m going to have to participate in uncomfortable conversations. Sometimes I’m going to make people mad. Sometimes I’m going to be insensitive or inaccurate. I need to be okay with these things and all of the consequences that come with them. When someone critiques something I’ve done, it’s not an insult to my character – it’s a chance to be better for the next time.

And finally, I can focus on the positive. I can look a little closer into the good things people are saying and move on from the bad. I can be proud of the fact that at least someone, somewhere, is getting something out of what I’ve written. If my work can make even one person feel more understood or appreciated or inspired, then I really shouldn’t care if a thousand other people hate it. I can take criticisms seriously and I can welcome feedback with open arms, but I can also remind myself that sometimes our triumphs need a little more attention than our failures.

I am only nineteen. I am flawed, and scared, and a million other undesirable things. But I’ve come to realize that feedback doesn’t have to be frightening; when approached with the right attitude, it can be exciting and educational all at once. I may not want to be a famous author living in the spotlight like I once dreamed when I was younger – but I definitely don’t want to let a fear of negativity stop me from connecting with others by sharing my work.

Ruined or Redefined? The Internet and Writing

Lately it seems as though everyone has a blog. You don’t need any coding skills or even any money to start a website, which means owning your own corner of cyberspace has become a possibility for just about anyone with access to a computer. While the availability of the internet is awesome, sometimes I can’t help but feel nervous about how easy it is for absolutely anyone to get published.

I’ve been a word worm for as long as I can remember. As a self-proclaimed grammar enthusiast I have to admit that sometimes I can come across a bit pedantic – but it all stems from a place of genuinely valuing good writing. I care about sentence structure. I embrace unusual diction. I applaud the classics whose works have become timeless; though Ernest Hemingway and I have never occupied the space of the world at the same time, I’ve still benefitted immensely from his words. Maybe I’m stuck in the past, but I value writing traditions. There’s usually a good reason that things are tried and true.

Having grown up intentionally honing my writing skills and growing my vocabulary, I find it difficult to see people misusing words or punctuation in articles and still getting a lot of reach. I place a lot of value on following the rules of a written language (within reason for your purpose), in part because it aids clarity, and in part because it shows that effort was put into the work. If you have a question about grammar in this day and age it’s extremely easy to Google the answer, and not doing so tends to come across as lazy in my mind. Part of me longs for the selective process of traditional publishing; despite its harshness, it at least forces one to truly evaluate and edit their writing before sending it out to the world. It requires more thought than quickly typing into a WordPress text box and pressing ‘publish’ all in one swoop.

I’m embarrassed to say so, but in the name of complete honesty: sometimes I catch myself reading someone’s blog and I feel as though they don’t deserve their platform. As if they’re not a real writer because they don’t exhibit strong understanding of comma usage, as if their thoughts aren’t worth my time simply because I don’t like the way in which they are expressed, as if they really ought to go out and be more professional.

But here’s the thing: publishing my work in this way is exactly what I do, too.

Do I have more of a right to put my writing out there than anyone else? No, absolutely not. The fact that I sometimes feel like I do is a direct testament to my inherently flawed human nature. I can be snobby about comma usage and sentence structure variation, but at the end of the day I am benefitting from the accessibility of self-publishing platforms just as much as those people about whom I complain. Of course I want to believe that I am a good writer, but when it comes down to it I have never “properly” published anything. I have never profited from my work. I have never had my name on the spine of a novel on a bookstore shelf. My biggest claim to fame is a few published poems in random magazines and A’s in all my English classes… and I still frequently make mistakes. While we all like to feel proud, the truth is that I do not have a right to feel more entitled than everyone else on the internet spewing their thoughts into the abyss.

I am torn. I want to preserve the intricacies of classically good writing. I want to preach about prepositions and adverbs and paragraph flow. I want to hold the entire world to a certain standard of writing quality – but the problem is that this standard is something subjective I’ve invented. My idea of good language control is not necessarily the same as that of scholars or scientists or random people on Facebook. I do not have a right to hold everyone I know to a personal preference of the best way to string together letters and words.

And at the same time that I want to preserve age-old methods of writing, I also want to encourage creativity. I want to break the rules when it suits my whims. I want to revel in the amazing collaboration that is facilitated by the interactive nature of the Internet. I want to be a positive, open person who values everyone, who gleefully enjoys the happiness and success of others, who is able to look past her own preoccupations to see everyone as beautiful and diverse and important. I want to see the message at the heart, not just the way it’s presented. I want to be better than I am.

I think it’s natural to want to protect my passions, but I don’t have a right to judge those who I feel are tainting them. After all, I’m clearly only human myself.

At the end of the day, I see it both ways. The unfiltered and unregulated environment of the internet is double sided in how it influences modern-day writing – creativity is encouraged at the same time conventions are abandoned. And whether I like it or not, writing will only continue to evolve.

All I know is that I’ll be along for the ride.