If you’re like any of the people who attended my 40th high school reunion recently (yes, yikes, I am that old), what you probably wish you knew in high school has a lot more to do with your social life than your academics. Within moments of arriving at the reunion and connecting with old friends, we collectively slipped back into our 16-year-old personalities with one huge difference — we told each other the truth about how we felt (So maybe we lied to each other about how good we looked but we were honest about our feelings. And really, most people looked damn good!). Sharing how we felt was something we were all woefully unable to do in high school. So, 40 years after the fact, we find out that we weren’t the only ones sitting home alone on too many Saturday nights, we weren’t the only ones who thought we were not good-looking enough, or too fat, or had “look away, hideous” acne, or weren’t popular or talented, or athletic, or cool enough to be accepted and happy. We find out that if we hadn’t been so scared in high school it might have been a whole different experience.
Which is not to say that my high school years weren’t fun, because a lot of it was a blast. I had friends, I had a lot of joy in those years. But, there was also a lot of self-doubt and pain and I found out at the reunion that others felt the same way. Maybe we could have avoided that pain if we talked more and perhaps even exposed ourselves (in a good way) to more people instead of suffering in silence. Then again, it’s possible that those years are designed to force us to experience the necessary growing pains to toughen us up for the realities of adulthood. Still, I can’t help but think that if someone had told me in high school that there were guys who secretly lusted after me and were just too shy to speak up, and girls who admired me for being smart and funny, maybe I would have felt better about myself and perhaps wouldn’t have had to face the reality of having no date for the junior prom. (Although that high school horror ended happily because just after the deadline for buying tickets passed, just one week before the prom when I had to accept my dateless status, I met someone, and we enjoyed a really fun time that weekend, after all.)
So, how can parents help kids survive high school? What can we say that will make the experience flow more happily? What is one thing you know now that you wish you knew in high school?
Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a whole lot parents can do to change the high school experience. We have to learn to do that on our own, and it’s definitely not easy. High school is just really, really hard. For the first 2 years of high school, I was shy, painfully shy. By the time I was a junior, I had made a fairly nice group of friends and started to come out of my shell, but looking back, I feel like maybe I wasted those first two years worrying too much about what everyone else thought of me. I honestly don’t think there was anything anyone (especially my parents) could’ve said to convince me that I was worth hearing from until I was ready to believe it myself. The ironic thing is, once I stopped worrying so much about how others saw me, people actually liked me a lot more. And I ended up having a lot more fun.
I was surprised to learn a few years post-high school that my image of myself was totally different from what others saw. I was hanging out with my friend Matt, who’d gone to my high school but that I didn’t end up really getting to know until we went to the same college. We were “reminiscing” about high school, and I mentioned what a shy outcast I felt like for so much of my time in high school. Matt looked at me like I had 3 heads and said “Are you kidding? I thought you were like the queen bee of Cheltenham!” To this day, I can’t imagine what made him think that, but it was interesting to learn.
I guess if there’s one thing I wish I’d known back then, it would be how to tell who your real friends are. Unfortunately, this is a lesson I’m still learning, but I am getting there. As an adult, I’ve come to expect a lot from my friends. My friendships are very important to me, and I’ve learned how to spot the good ones much sooner that I used to. I’ve gotten better at nurturing the friendships that matter, and staying away from the toxic ones. If I’d been able to do that when I was 16, it probably would’ve saved me a lot of heartache.
I am also glad that I never seriously dated any of the people I thought I was in love with in high school, since some of them might be in jail now.
I wanted to write that I wish I’d known more boys liked me. But I decided that was too shallow. But honestly that is what I wish I had known. At my high school reunion someone who was considered to be really cool back then told me he had a huge crush on me in high school. I’m not ashamed to say I felt really validated. I told my friends I was getting a t-shirt made that said that kid had a crush on me and I was wearing it to our next reunion. I mean I was half kidding, but seriously, that was the main thing that I wish had been different in high school — that I don’t really feel like I had enough boyfriends (or really any). I wish it was something a little deeper, but it’s really not.
I couldn’t stop thinking about how my whole experience might have been different if I had known that guy liked me, and maybe it wouldn’t have been different at all.Then I thought that I wouldn’t have felt so bad about myself if I had had that validation. Maybe that would have helped me avoid a lot of body issues. I probably still needed to gain confidence in who I was, though. I felt very lonely in high school. People always used to tell me I was too deep. Maybe knowing that someone was interested in knowing more about me would have made a difference. And the thing is I had a sense at one point that this guy was interested, but I didn’t do anything about it because I was afraid of embarrassing myself.
So I guess high school is like your get-out-of-jail-free card. If you mess it up, you get to graduate and go out into the world and never see anyone ever again in you don’t want to. So, maybe it’s okay to take a few more risks. I’m not going to act like high school wasn’t really hard because it was, but I guess I wish I had taken a few more chances. They might have actually paid off. But I guess hindsight is sort of like cheating because I already know what happens so it’s easy for me to say “put yourself out there more”. But I do think embarrassment is good for the soul. It’s important to realize that embarrassment doesn’t mean the world will end. Making a fool of yourself and living through it is a life skill. Also I think it’s good to know that the label of cool that is so powerful in high school means nothing in the real world. We’re all just people who have to find our niche.
I wish I had known not to take pictures of yourself wearing a bikini, platform sneakers, and red lipstick when you weigh 60 pounds, on a camera that your sister would later take pictures of a high school dance with, develop the pictures and bring the whole roll of film to school for her friends to look through, forgetting that the bikini pictures were in there.
Other than that, I don’t really feel like I needed to know anything else in high school. Most things I was better off not knowing. Sure, I wasn’t the most popular person in the world, but I felt like I had a lot of friends that I genuinely liked (even if I don’t like them now), and there were boys that liked me (although totally didn’t like them), but I really don’t feel like there is anything I would have needed to know to make it a better experience or more valuable. For the most part, I did what I wanted to do because I wanted to do it. I wasn’t too concerned about what other people thought of me (no more than any awkward teenager), and I discovered a love of faux fur and sequins.
I’d say there are things I wished I had known when I was in college, but high school, I feel like I had enough information, except for that whole bikini situation – not good.
I also wished I had known to appreciate “fruit and vegetable packs” in my lunch, because I hate making lunch now, and everyone knows I like a good side dish with my main meal. Even though sometimes mom would cut apples on an onion cutting board, it was a good idea in theory.
Mom Writes: Well, I guess my girls prove the theory that parents can raise kids in exactly the same way and still they turn out differently. Clearly, Tamra was more comfortable with high school and somehow managed to escape unscathed. Or, maybe Alexis and Shira are just deeper. Who knows? Still, as a parent, what I’d encourage all parents to do is to work really hard to keep the lines of communication open when your kids are in high school. If they’re not Tamra, they’ll likely need to chat. Well, that and don’t cut their apples on an onion cutting board or ten years later, they’ll still be complaining about it, despite the fact that you actually made their lunches well into their high school years!