Dear High School Seniors,
That’s it. That’s all. You’ve gotten dressed up and walked through those ceremonies you didn’t want to attend, joked with your teachers about the pointlessness of senior finals, pulled your senior prank, planned your graduation party and RSVPed to many others that you didn’t even think you’d be invited to. You’ve cried your tears to mourn the memories that made you who you are today, and you’ve watched your graduation cap soar through the air on graduation day after barely listening to a word of advice your principal gave you in that speech. And then it was over, just like that.
My high school years were not my golden days. OK, so I had no student loans to pay off, and I had this false yet comforting sense of who I was that carried me through every day, but I’d be lying if I told you that your high school years will be the best of your life. You come home the day of graduation, take off your cap and gown, hang them in our closet and then party the night away with the people who have most likely known every triumph and failure you have experienced to this day (seriously, there’s someone who remembers and won’t let you forget that you wet your pants in fifth grade or accidentally dated your fourth cousin in seventh). Drunk girls cry about how much they will miss each other and how they are all totally going to keep in touch at school. Some people brush it off and pretend like it’s nothing, like everything is exactly the same.
But I’m here to tell you that it’s not and that it won’t be. And that’s a good thing.
You leave those halls and suddenly you’re no longer the pitcher for your varsity baseball team, captain of the cheer squad, president of student council, the girl who liked horses a little too much or the gay kid who was publicly outed in 10th grade.
High school has a way of making us define ourselves in the exact way that everyone around us will. We somehow feel a false sense of security in this identity that our education and reputation thus far has given us. If everyone says you’re the weird girl who eats lunch in the guidance office, suddenly you’re telling yourself that you’re just the weird girl who eats lunch in the guidance office. If you’ve been sitting at a lunch table with the most popular girls in your grade since first grade, you feel safe because you’re one of them. Leaving high school offers no comfort or safety. Suddenly there’s nobody telling you who to be or who to befriend; you are free to define and redefine yourself. Things you thought you knew about yourself are tested, manipulated and completely changed once you leave this small corner of the world with this minuscule population. Things are going to change, and so are you.
Coming home for holiday breaks gets weirder every time. At first, reunions are great and you look forward to seeing your friends from high school more than you may even look forward to returning to college after that break. This is normal; these people offer stability, something that is hard to grasp in your first few semesters in college. However, the longer you are separated from the culture that once completely defined you as a person, the more independent you become in defining and finding yourself.
I guess you don’t notice this change instantly, though. My first summer home was normal; I hadn’t changed all that much and neither had my high school friends. Everyone came home for the summer, but I mostly only saw classmates on social media or at the occasional party, assuming I got invited. High school still loomed over us like a dark cloud. It was obvious to see when I attended parties that not many others had changed much either: the same cliques still gossiped alone at parties, the same couples fought and left early—everyone was pretty predictable. And by the end, I was yet again yearning to get the hell out of this small town and back to school.
The big changes came when my second summer rolled around. This summer, fewer people came home due to internships, study abroad, or the simple decision to live in their college town all summer (a decision I almost made as well). I started to look around at my class and realize that we are adults and that we have so little time left to mess around in the summer like we used to. The most important part of this summer so far has been the general acceptance among all of my classmates and the realization that we had all acted inappropriately at some point in high school. This summer I was invited to parties I would have never seen myself attending as a senior in high school, holding engaging conversations with people I might have uttered 10 words to throughout my entire four years walking the same halls with them. You can no longer trust your definition of a person by their high school persona and a person’s true personality outside of their high school friends or relationship may just surprise you. Somehow high school drama seems to fall away once everyone has experienced a world larger than the one you are just now leaving. We all realize how much we’ve been through since high school, and there seems to be a common empathy associated with that.
I also made new friends from my high school class that I never hung out with in high school. I often say that in college, you can choose your friends based on the person you are and all of the friends you keep from high school are friends that you would have chosen somewhere down the line anyway. But realize that you won’t keep them all. Your high school friends won’t all become people that you want to be friends with, and you’ll realize quickly that you only have room in your life for people who actively make an attempt to be part of it. The person you are today is not the person you will be one year, two years, or four years from now, and some people won’t like that. Some people may barely recognize you. But maybe that’s how you know you’re doing something right.
I look back at the person I was in high school, and I barely recognize her. I often say that I hate my high school self, and it’s true — I hated myself because I didn’t know who I was or where I belonged. I am so grateful that I am the person I am today instead of that jealous, confused, insecure girl. I have been out of high school for two years, and I have never felt stronger in my identity, my friendships, and my self-image. Every part of the transition tested my strength, but we all make it through more self-actualized, understanding, and socially and globally intelligent versions of ourselves, and if that doesn’t excite you, I don’t know what will.
The point is that no matter what your plans for after graduation, things are going to change. You may not notice this immediately, you may not notice it a year from now, and you may completely avoid change like the plague. But you’ll feel it in the first true friend you make in college. You’ll feel it when you finally choose the right major, when the job you’ve been working finally helps you buy that car you’ve been wanting, when you’re five hours from your best friend, crying in bed, and all you can do is FaceTime her. You’ll feel it. And sure, it sounds scary; you’ve known the same thing all your life. But I’m here to tell you that these will be the most rewarding, thrilling, eye-opening times of your life, and if you spend them worrying about what will change, you’ll miss all of the beauty in your own transition. And that’s the point of all of this, right?
So go live. Go find yourself in dingy college basement parties, pulling all-nighters at the library, red-eyed in a coffee shop at 5 a.m. on your way to work, begging your professor for a passing exam grade. Then come back in a few years and see if they notice you.