My daughter laughed aloud. My son’s eyes got wide …then he laughed too. Thin, mustachioed, and grinning through newsprint from across the years, the grainy photo of my sixteen year old self (handed to me with a smile by a friend I’ve known since 7th grade) invited me on an unexpected stroll down memory lane.
This surprise gift of an antique newspaper clipping followed close upon a terrific conversation I’d had with my yearbook teacher during which she’d asked me, in three words, to describe what I was like in high school. My three: So. Very. Boring.
Looking at that thirty year old scrap of newspaper I reconsidered.
It’s not, I realized, that I wasn’t boring; it’s just that in 1986 I didn’t understand that I was. Like so many of the students I work with, my perspective as a high school junior was limited. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I saw the world through the only eyes I had, with the inexperienced vision of an adolescent.
That clipping, when the ink had still been wet, meant the world to me. It was validation of hard work and a signpost that I was on the right path. It was a nod from The Statesman Journal that I was successful.
Three decades later the same piece of paper was a curiosity, good for a moment of fun, but inconsequential in who I am, or better put, who I have become.
That truth, as black and white as a newspaper article, is something educators like me struggle to help our students understand.
“Why would I want to take the PSAT?” a junior asks. “I know what I’m going to do and it doesn’t involve a four year university.”
“I don’t have time for a career inventory,” the senior tells his counselor. “I’ve already got it all planned out.”
I believe the students when they say these things. They are, for them, the truth.
That sixteen year old buffoon I was (with so very much hair) reminds me that as real as that truth is, time has a way of changing us and our perspective in ways that are as unexpected as they are profound.
Who we are in high school is who we are in high school. This is not who we will become.
Our inner core may be the same, go watch Michael Apted’s 7 Up film series if you have any doubts of that, but the way we see the world and our place in it does evolve.
At sixteen I regarded myself as twice as clever and ten times as able as I really was. I acted boldly when I was really scared and tried to look confident when I didn’t have a clue. I took my privilege for granted and my success as a direct result of my talent, not the amalgam of luck, hard work, and the support of others that it really was.
The adult I now am looked at that newspaper clipping and understood more of the truth. Even so, if I were a time traveler who could sit down with my high school self I don’t know that I could persuade him to believe that point of view. Maybe that’s best.
The importance of youthful exuberance should never be undervalued. Sinatra was wrong when he sang that youth was wasted on the young. Youth is the transformative experience that makes us who we are as adults. It empowers us to take on the impossible, believing that for us reality just might make an exception.
As an educator then, how to help my students balance passion and perspective? How do teachers, counselors, and administrators like me help kids see that we are not dismissing their teenage truth even as we encourage them to make choices that keep doors open (that PSAT and career inventory) and give them the options to do great and unexpected things with their emerging lives.
Maybe a part of the answer is introducing them to our sixteen year old selves.
As we are honest with our students about who we were and who we are now, we may have the possibility of helping them see that directions can change and all still may turn out okay.
Engaging with our kids about what it was like for us to navigate adolescence might help them see that the path is seldom straight and that the bends and curves might not only be the reality of growing older, but might also be the best parts of becoming an adult.
On top of that I’d wager that our students might smile at the things that stay the same; driving to work this morning I found myself singing along to Depeche Mode.
At the very least I’ll suggest that as educators we are wise to pause from time to time to put ourselves in our own students’ Chuck Taylor high tops. Memory Lane leads past the corner of Insight and the cul-de-sac of Empathy, if we look up and see them.
If nothing else, that junior with the Tom Selleck mustache is good for a laugh.