Dear High School Me…Wait, It Gets Better

My high school yearbook’s slogan the year I graduated was: “Wait, It Gets Better!” That was both an overtly cynical slam against my high school experience and a mildly inspirational message for the future. At the time, it was controversial, but since this theme was coined by one of my closest friends, I loved it. It was true. “High school” is a mythologized rite of passage in American culture. I have always felt that because humans grow and mature at such varied rates, either high school with its requisite drama and charms suited you well or, if you were like me, high school graduation was the happiest day of your life. I simply couldn’t wait to move on to the next thing. I was so done with cliques and clubs, grade comparisons, and who was dating who. Internally, I was busting at the seams. It was as if the container of high school had simply shrunk in front of my eyes while my dreams, ideas, and ambition ballooned over the sides, like bread dough rising.

I was in a hurry. Ready to bust out of my hometown and launch into the world. High school was something to be checked off the list of life, to be gotten through, survived.

Off to college I went, and guess what? While there was more diversity in all things, that too was a kind of container: complete with cliques and clubs, comparisons galore, and a social puzzle that was constantly adding and deleting pieces as people gelled, except when they didn’t. Everyone around me was still growing and maturing: more drama and charms, just of a different ilk. I was a little less restless, but I was still repeating the mantra “Wait, It Gets Better!” without a clear definition about what “better” would actually look like. How would my 18-year-old self have known “better” if I had seen it? Would I have recognized “better” if it had slapped me in the face or asked me out? Even if it worked that way and “better” shined around like a dream date, how can those expectations ever be lived up to in a world of instant gratification, disappointments, and personal shortcomings? Once you’ve reached better, there’s better still just over the horizon. We never really arrive anywhere when our sights are permanently fixed on fantasy goals. Dreams run amok while the reality of our now languishes in plain sight, gasping its last breath as yet another moment of our lives slips away; and, we don’t even notice, busying ourselves with the business of tomorrow.

Dear High School Me,

How could you have known that while there’s nothing wrong with dreams, your whole life is happening while you are planning those adventures? Indeed, your now is shaping your ability to find your way on the path to your future. Don’t close your eyes to the opportunities, relationships, connections, and loves in this moment and every moment. This is the space in which your life springs to life; this is the moment, as imperfect and commonplace as some of these moments may seem. They all add up, you see, these moments, one by one, into whatever container you choose for yourself. You will learn that to live outside of any container will leave you adrift and rudderless. The key is to embrace your human need for community; and, while we don’t usually get to choose our high school, you will be responsible for choosing everything else for the rest of your life. The ability to choose well is rooted in the present moment, so find comfort there and stay awhile. Look around in those very same places that you feel restless. It’s natural to be full of yearning when you are young and to strive for more. But know this: The work you are doing now is making way for a clique of your people to form and grow — a club of your own to create and celebrate, comparisons which will be made with wisdom and perspective; and, with some good karma, hard work, and a little luck, you may find true love and realize that all those heartaches and headaches were a kind of practice for the true container of your whole self. Despite all of it, my high school best friend, after some twists and turns, is still my best friend. My high school boyfriend and his wife came to a party I threw a few months ago, and I just paid my respects at the funeral of a high school friend. It did get better, but not in the way any of us expected. It got deeper, it got richer, and my container –once so restricting that it was impossible to breathe within it — expanded somehow to hold all of it, the old and the new. There’s a place for all of us, right here and now, but wait, it gets better…

In memory of Donna Benning Kotlan


Leave a Reply