Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Speech My High School Will Never Ask Me To Give

(inspired by cousinTerra's attempts, at the ripe old age of 21, to give high school students tips about college life)

Well, here you are. You're done. You are done being slaves to the public school system and you're ready to go out and start running the world.

Some people say that high school is the best time of your life. If your teenage years have been anything like mine were, I bet you're twisting in hope that not only is that not true, but that it's a big flaming lie. Look, teenage years are rough. You're scared, you're changing, everyone has it in for you, and you're only just starting to become a person after having been a kid for so much of your life. And the problem with becoming a person is that makes you suddenly different from all the other newly-becoming-persons around you. And everyone else is just as scared as you are that everyone else will notice. High school ... does not make it easy for you to be you.

Now here's the bad news: you're not done yet. Yes, you're about to head into the real world, which means college for a lot of you. And the good part is you get a lot more choice. It's no longer just about choosing between Drafting or Childcare. You're about to gain a whole lot more control over the shape of your life and the shape of your day. And here's hoping you take over the reins of that control with two steady hands and a clear mind. Here's hoping you know what you want. But the world will keep forgetting to tell you that it's okay to be your own special unique snowflake. So please ... remember that. The most important thing you can bring to any experience is yourself. The most important person you can ever be is the you-est you there is (yes, I'm alluding to Dr. Seuss. Dude was smart.)

So find out who you are. Try everything. Learn what you want to do with yourself by learning - from experience - what you don't want to do with yourself. Learn who you are by learning who everyone else is. Watch. Listen. Read. See. Do. And become yourself. Celebrate and sing yourself. What they didn't let you know in high school, but what you need to know now, is that the differences between you and everyone else are the most important things about you, and are what you should build on and grow from, grow into. Find out what you want by finding out who you are.

And something else you'll need to notice, in all this self-discovery and growth, is the journey of The Rest of Your Life that's starting to sprout up around you. That's a path that's harder to recognize when you're starting on it, but the road signs become clearer the longer you go, the more you pay attention. And here's something I've only just begun to notice myself, at the veteran age of twenty-six:

Life is not a mountain. That's the main confusing thing you'll find, because all of your adolescence, all of school is. You climb up a grade each year, one step closer to the goal of graduation and your diploma. Each achievement, or failed achievement, is marked and notated, a flag stuck in the ground, and then you must climb above that, keep going further. In high school, you can see the peak of the mountain quite clearly (I'll give you a hint: we're there now). And in college, you're on a new mountain, but the top is in sight and you can get there.

And post-college ...

It's time for a parable. My dad and I were on a camping trip and decided to do one of the main hiking trails that would take us up to a (okay a small) mountain peak over about two hours, with a two hour return walk. However, when we got to the trail, we saw that it had been blocked off (this is a metaphor for: life won't always give you the path you think you should take. pay attention). We chose another trail and slogged our way up very sandy soil for three hours, always thinking the peak was just around the next bend, up the next slope, and soon we could rest. And it never showed up. Eventually, worn out and dehydrated, we turned back. Later at the ranger station, we learned that that path did not actually end, but continued twisting and climbing among several mountains, never leading to a specific peak. It would have eventually led us out of the park entirely, and into a larger mountain range.  If you go through life, climbing, thinking you're on your way to reach the top, you're probably not going to find it. The road doesn't lead where you think it will, and "top" is an arbitrary concept. King of the World is title that we don't all get to win.

And that's fine. I'm not preaching compromise here, I am absolutely not preaching failure as the inevitable end, and I'm not telling you to not have ambitions or epic goals. Goddammit, you should have epic goals, it's the only way to feel like you're living. But you also should recognize that those goals can change as you change, and just because you wanted to be an astronaut when you were ten does not require that you still want that when you're twenty. Or thirty. So please, by God, climb that mountain trail. But notice the trail you're climbing, see what you're passing as you go, and let that be what you're striving for, too. Don't set yourself up to feel like a failure if you don't climb the mountain you wanted to climb ten years ago. Recognize that this mountain you're on right now is good too.

I know Life is in the Journey is so overused at this point that it doesn't mean anything anymore. And that's a pity. Because it's not about the final peak. It's about the road to get there, the steps you take, the person you become.

Leaving Metaphor Land but still talking about me, I've been realizing post-college that sitting on the goal of Big Movie Star in Fabulous Mansion is not perhaps in my own self-interest. It's a mountain peak I certain want to keep somewhere in my sights, but I don't want to hold onto the notion I had in high school, that if I don't reach it - and reach it soon, before I start to get *gasp* OLD - I'm a failure. What's important is doing good work, communicating ideas, and finding happiness.

One more time: what's important is finding happiness. Find what makes you happy. Find what makes you you. And do that. And be happy, if you can. It's perhaps the hardest mountain peak to climb, but it's so worth it.

Inspired? Good. Now go be stupid college students who don't know any better. You have a new mountain to climb. Pack water and an energy bar.

And take pictures. Lots of pictures.


  1. It occurs to me, now it's too late and I've already published the thing, that this speech isn't nearly funny enough. I think if I were giving an actual speech, I'd aim for more humor. Ah well.

  2. You forgot to mention that we tried the blocked trail the next morning and saw a family of deer saunter by within touching distance. A magic moment. Not sure how that affects the metaphor ...