As I walked through those halls a few days ago I was once again reminded of those feelings. Signs of my school were plastered all over the buildings. The lockers still the same shade of dust and ‘bruin blue’. The scent of adolescent boys wafting out into the halls from the locker room. The dean of students still strutting in her high heels with the same amount of determination in each step.
I feel 15 again. Size 00 knee length shorts and a pink and white-stripped top from Abercrombie and Fitch. An outfit I had been planning for weeks. As I enter the front gates I hear the voice of my Nana. ‘You are going to school with men with beards’ these words play like a broken record in my mind as I walk through those halls on my first day of high school school. This voice continues as I bare witness to the exact specimens she told me about. These bearded men run in large packs and are a lot larger, in size and in demeanor, then I ever imagined.
I feel 18 again. Walking through that same dusty hallway but this time wearing a cap and gown. The feeling of accomplishment and relief wash over me as I walk through the same hall of bearded men. This time I know these giants. I also know that behind their facial hair and man like appearance they too are like me. 18. They too are ‘trying to figure it out’. Of course none of us say this we simply say the names of the colleges we will be attending in the fall. The spectrum of UC’s and CSU’s. MIT. Duke. De Anza. Some have been preparing their decent towards these ivory tower institutions since before I knew I even wanted to go to college. Others will forever be basking in the glory of those high school years. Neither is wrong. Neither is right.
At 25 I am now just beginning to understand this. There is no “right way”. Because as you may or may not have known about me, I was that overly excitable student gong ho on knowing my next steps at all moments. As Mr. Jo told me ‘you were always reliable if you said you were going to do it, you would turn in each assignment perfectly within the box (not that the box was a bad thing) … each thing had a purpose and direction’. And that was me. Perfectly in that box. ASB President. President of Best Buddies. Varsity volleyball player. Church going. Hard working student obsessed with being perfect. Whatever that load of absolute shit is.
Now I would like to speak to high school Paige and students like her.
It’s ok to not have it figured out. It may not feel like it but it’s ok to say things like I’m scared or I don’t really know if this is what I want or even I really just need a break. There is so much pressure to go to the ‘right school’ or the ‘most prestigious’ university. I can tell you coming from both UC Santa Cruz and The University of Chicago that these elitist institutions are not all that they are cracked up to be. But I will also acknowledge that there is a power and privilege that comes from attending these places. Like all things in life it’s a mixed bag. Of course all of this is coming from someone who has already “made it”. I say this all because I remember what that pressure felt like. To over perform, when learning did not come easy. To put on a smile, when all I wanted to do was cry. To be perfect, when this was really just a way to control my uncontrollable circumstances. To get rejection letter after rejection letter, when my over achieving circle was receiving acceptance letter after acceptance letter. O the amount of pressure we put on ourselves. It’s enough to take years off our already short existences on this beautiful earth.
What I wish I learned at a younger age. That the non-material things matter so much more. Relationships. Happiness. Love for yourself, for others. I learned a lot in college but it wasn’t in the way I thought. I started to think critically. My passion for understanding grew. My love for others grew as I learned more about myself. It’s been my relationships that have sustained me— they have brought me more joy than any piece of paper. These people have challenged me more then any standardized test ever could. They have humanized my mind and existence more then any institution ever could. They have supported me more then any material thing ever has and ever could. I am not blind to the reality of the times we are living in. A time where standardized tests mean more than your passion. AP scores are more significant than the hours and tears that went into learning. Where being a good student overrides being a good person. Where how much you can cram into your memory means more than how far reaching your imagination can go. Engage in both the relational and academic aspects of your learning because a lot can be gained from both.
Continue in the pursuit of learning—of yourself, the world, history, the struggles of others, whatever fuels you. What I’m beginning to learn is that the greatest lessons come in the most unexpected place. That being open minded will take you on physical and psychological journeys you never imagined. You may come to the same wonderful and painful realization. Growth does not acquaint to comfort. Growth comes with discomfort and maybe one day we can learn to sit in that discomfort with an appreciation for that painful and beautiful process. Do not limit your imagination and do not accept ‘business as usual’. And if you do find your options limited and yourself backed into a corner—breathe and forgive yourself. Allow yourself to heal and as someone recently told me baby steps.
So as I walked through the halls of my old high school I am reminded of my first and last days at that school—and a lot of days in between. The fear. The relationships. The love. But nearly 7 years later I have a different appreciation for this place. And it isn’t because my academic or extra curricular accolades. It is because of the love and support I felt in this space. What wasn’t clear to me in high school, but was most likely glaringly obvious to everyone else, was that the same things that helped me to succeed in school—control, perfectionism and ‘staying in the box’—were also my coping mechanisms for what was happening in my life.
So in those last moments of my visit I sat on the wooden bench outside my old history classroom and tearfully thanked Mr. Jo. Because I remembered what it felt like to fearfully walk through those halls. The safety within the walls of that classroom. The warmth that drew me to stay after class to talk to him about my hopes and dreams. The gratitude I still feel for having such a special teacher in my life. And now as I go back to Guatemala I will have the imagine in my head of this same man yelling YES with his hands waving in the air as he hears about my most recent adventures.