“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” -Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Look, I’ve never read A Tale of Two Cities, but I would say this quote sums up high school pretty accurately (except for maybe the “age of wisdom” part). High school helped me meet some of the most important people in my life, helped me find myself as a musician, and gave me tons of opportunities that helped me establish a clear vision of what I want to do with my life. On the flipside, I often found myself incredibly stressed, learned what true anxiety felt like, and spent a considerable amount of time doubting my ability to get any sort of job after graduation.
You’ll never hear me say that I wish I could go back in time and do things over again. I believe that every situation, especially the unpleasant ones, are fantastic learning opportunities. If I hadn’t made some of the mistakes I did, I probably wouldn’t have matured very much. If I did go back and do it again, a lot of the stresses would still be there anyway- for example, I would have taken all of those AP classes again every single time. But if I theoretically got the chance to give my past self a couple of “heads up”s about what’s to come, I would tell her these things.
I’ll go ahead and crush your soul in advance: People are doing what you do, and they’re doing it way better.
I spent my freshman year being very naive about where I stood as a musician. I made the All State band on my first try and I thought I was the absolute shit. The funny thing is that I’ve gotten exponentially better at tuba since then, but my confidence has gone down. I’ve been exposed to so many people and groups who were miles ahead of me. I remember the first time I met someone my age who was significantly better than than I was. I was pretty crushed. I spent some time sitting around feeling bad about it. My senior year, I made it into an All National band with some of the best musicians in the country. My self esteem should have been at an all time high, but all I could think while I was there was “Damn, these guys are good. Like really, really good. How am I playing in the same section as them?”
This isn’t meant to be a sob story. The difference between that first time I got stomped on and the more recent times I’ve been stomped on is in how I react. Now, whenever I play with or see someone like this, I am ridiculously motivated. A big fish in a small pond has no room to grow. Whenever I get complacent and my drive to practice slows down, I seem to be put in a situation where I’m working in proximity to someone who I can learn from. It’s great and always sends me into the practice room. At the end of the summer, I’m heading off to school to spend a lot of time surrounded by people who will motivate me in this way. My freshman self would have dreaded this. Present me can’t wait.
Get your driver’s license right when you turn 16.
This one doesn’t require a lot of explanation. I got my learner’s permit the summer between my freshman and sophomore years. I then spent two years basically screwing around because I didn’t feel like putting in the work required to learn how to drive. I finally, finally got my license at the beginning of my senior year because I became sick of being the only one without it.
I think that getting your driver’s license is the first real landmark of freedom in life. You don’t have to depend on anyone else to get anywhere and you can just sort of go places. I could have gotten my license as early as a week after my 16th birthday. I really wish I had gotten it then. I have no legitimate excuse for why I didn’t- I was just lazy. My life would have been so much easier.
Stop procrastinating. Seriously. For real.
When it came to my schoolwork, I was a straight up magician. I did just about every assignment the day it was due. I would say “except for huge projects”, but honestly I did a couple of big projects on their due date if it were due for a sixth or seventh period class. I pushed the boundary for procrastinating so hard that I raised the eyebrows of other chronic procrastinators. “You’re just starting that now?” And even if it resulted in a lot of unnecessary stress, I never learned my lesson because I somehow managed to produce work deserving of an A or a B.
My procrastinating career reached a climax at the end of my first semester senior year. My school offered some AP classes online because there was a shortage of those certified to teach those classes. For my online literature class, I felt pretty ambitious at the beginning of the year. When selecting my pace, I decided to go for “accelerated”- this would push my deadline of finishing the course to the end of the first semester instead of giving me the whole year. I just wanted something that would motivate me to knock out at least one of my online classes early.
If my workload were spread out evenly over the semester it would have been very manageable. The online courses allowed us to be “self paced”, letting us turn in assignments whenever we wished as long as we were at a certain point at the end of each semester. For the average high school student, this translates to “do everything at the last minute”. I did this, and it was extra stressful because I had the whole course to finish at the end of the first semester. I spent a week straight of my winter break doing nothing but waking up, doing online work, eating, sleeping, and repeat. It made me crazy. I had the absolute worst New Year’s Eve of my life- Instead of enjoying the holiday, I was writing essays upon essays for AP Literature.
And I did it. I finished everything I needed to by the end of the semester and came out with an A. But that week was one of the most miserable times of my life. I drove myself completely insane getting all of that work done (plus a ton of stuff for AP Gov). When we returned to school after break, I hadn’t slept the previous few nights, I was shaky, and I was barely coherent. I know it was just a week, but an absolutely awful week of completely preventable misery. It took doing an entire course in a very short amount of time for me to finally learn my lesson about procrastination.
Be nicer to yourself.
It breaks my heart to think about how much time I used to spend being angry at myself. I’ve come to a point where I’m happy with who I am, but this is a new feeling. In high school, I internalized a lot of my problems. I blamed myself for everything shitty that anyone has ever done to me. I became frustrated with myself frequently and often for no reason. And yes, I spent a lot of time being afraid of the mirror.
I think that this is a thing that most teenagers struggle with. You have friend and relationship issues, school is killing you, and you feel pressure from all sides. Even if you’re objectively successful, you constantly feel as if you’re not good enough. You’re always comparing yourself to everyone else and wishing you could be more like them, even when those people are comparing themselves to you in the same way. Even some of the most seemingly confident teenagers battle with their self esteem. I spent so much time in a negative space, but I had so much to be proud of and there were so many things I didn’t appreciate about myself.
“Be nicer to yourself” is easier said than done. And even though I like who I am a lot right now, I’m not entirely sure how I got here. I’m glad I overcame those feelings and that I am who I am today, but I can’t help but think what kind of mental barriers I wouldn’t have had to deal with if I’d felt better earlier.
So, I can’t go back in time and tell myself these things, nor do I want to. I know them now and that’s good enough for me. And of course, there are so many other things I could tell my past self. I think I could write an entire book on the subject.
Outside of this post and some thoughts here and there, I’m not really dwelling on my high school experience too much. Living in the past constantly is always a weird way to exist (I’ve been there). I’ve got some neat stuff coming up in the next few months, so I’m just going to look forward.
Moral of the story: I’m glad that I’m done with high school.