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HumankindNESS: Letter to My High School Self

By Jennifer Richardson
It is graduation season, and because I am married to an educator, this time of the year always reminds me of my high school self. I was a study in contradictions; confident yet worried, intelligent but immature, excited to grow up but nervous to move away, seeking significance but also wanting to be invisible sometimes. What would I tell my high school self if I could go back and talk to her?

The need to calm down and stop wishing my life away would be at the top of my list. I would say that there is something in every day to learn from, and life is not a race toward the next fun thing. These years that seem predictable will become the bedrock of your memories.

My teenage self could have benefited from knowing that the things that others choose for us are eventually abandoned. Even if going to Art school, or building houses, or deciding to become a chef makes no sense to anyone else, it may be the best choice for you. Don’t let anyone belittle your desire to be a parent, it is amazing work. Someday you will need to be doing something that resonates with you.

Grades are important, but they are not the main event in high school. The real work is learning how to effectively respond to a variety of personalities and challenges, and learning to keep getting back up when you fall down. And learning to see beyond yourself to walk in someone else’s shoes. The learning was the actual reward, not the grade.

I would tell my high school self to listen to people, and understand that everyone deserves to be heard. I would say that someday you may meet someone in your college class that takes their own life, and you will wish you had done more to help them feel like they mattered.

Looking for another human being to complete you is an exercise in futility. Stop looking around hoping someone else will make you whole. The day you stop expecting other people to make you happy is the day when another complete person can be drawn to you.

I would let myself know that it does not mean you are a failure because you experienced failure. Changing direction after a setback is a skill that will serve you forever.

Popularity is generally a cruel master. There is no need to desperately seek approval from people who will only view you through a critical lens. Be kind, but just be who you are. You can stop trying to fit into the perfect mold of what you think other people want. You can be your own unique, passionate, quirky version of yourself. You can be thrilled if people like you, but perfectly okay if they don’t.

I would tell myself not to waste a minute with any grandparents, and that some of your very favorite memories of them would be moments you would not recognize as important until the moments were gone.

I would say thank your student teacher your junior year for telling you that you should consider being an author someday. Be more appreciative and thankful for all the ways parents, teachers, and people who love you pour care and nurturing into your life.

Tell each of your best friends what they mean to you. You may know one the finest people you will ever meet in the fifth grade and then never see them again after they move away.

Having people disagree with you keeps you intellectually strong and emotionally open. If you feel you are the smartest person in your group, you need to allow others in. Always have someone to look up to.

I would tell my younger self that who you hang out with changes everything. Not every easy friendship is a great choice. You do become like the people you fill your life with, so be choosy. Look carefully into the faces of the people you spend your time with, they are who you are becoming.

Mostly I would tell my teenage self that life is meant to be spent in ways that serve a cause greater than self-interest. You cannot begin to make a meaningful contribution to the world until you realize you are not the center of it.

Congratulations to all of the high school students who made it through another year. Be patient with the adults in your life when we offer you advice, for the millionth time. We are telling you all the things we wish we could tell our younger selves. We are not smarter than you, but we are further down the road, and we hope that our life-earned insight will give you just a little more of what you need to succeed.

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