Saturday, April 24, 2010

Letter to My Seventeen Year Old Self

April 24, 2010
I saw this on Fidgeting Gidget's blog the other day, so I hope she doesn't mind if I borrow the idea.

I teach high school seniors, and we are in the spring of prom, finals, AP exams, and end-of-the-year senior celebrations. There are new relationships blossoming, and others crumbling under the weight of separate colleges on the horizon or the promise of new-found independence ahead. Some friends are pledging eternal bonds, while others are succumbing to the rumors and gossip that can be fuel to the fire in a high school social hierarchy. Some students are relishing the idea of moving away from home, away from parents, away from what they see as provincial life, while others are terrified of losing the safety net that's been under their feet for the past seventeen years. The drama can be all-consuming.

What I wouldn't give to be able to impart what I have learned about this era in life to the kids I teach--relax, and enjoy it all. The reality is, though, that it's a lesson we all have to figure out on our own--it's part of the process of growing up--knowing what to appreciate, and knowing what to let go of. If I had had someone to tell me these things when I was seventeen, in a way that I would really hear, these are some of the words of advice that would have been helpful (I'll pass, for now, on advice about hair and fashion sense, though that might also have been useful at the time):

Dear Donna,

You've almost made it--the light at the end of the tunnel is near. You've worked very hard for everything you've earned, and you have a right to enjoy it. But while you're counting down these last few weeks of your high school experience, there are a few things I'd like you to think about, to consider.

---Take pictures--lots of them. You think you'll be able to hold on to these days as the best of times, but you'll miss not having pictures of these days later in life. A picture really is worth a thousand words, and a thousand memories.

---Try not to take yourself so seriously. Your grades are important to you, and they should be. But later in life, no one's going to ask you about that time you were Salutatorian in high school. They will ask you what you were like, what you did for fun, who your friends were, what you thought about. You are more than your grades; make sure you have something to show for it.

---When you're thinking about college, don't sell yourself short. There's nothing wrong with Fresno State, but don't limit your options just because you think you have to. And, by the way, while you're there at college, open your eyes every once in awhile to some of the other things going on around campus. Experience it; live it. Don't let your college memories be just about books and classrooms.

---Get your driver's license now. Why wait until you're out of school? It might be fun to experience some of that freedom like so many of the rest of your friends.

---Your best friend? She's not going to be around to stay in touch into your twilight years. Make the most of the times you have together now. Write letters, take pictures. Call a little more often when you go off to college and she's still in high school. Spend time together and don't take that time for granted. Some people leave this earth much sooner than we are prepared for.

---And the boy who dumped you a couple of months before prom and broke your heart? The one you believed you'd marry some day? I know it seems like the end of the world. You feel the shattered pieces of you are too fragile to repair, too damaged to be fully whole again. I know it seems like you'll never survive. You will. Remember to breathe. Remember to take each day as it comes. Remember to not let yourself be defined by the loss. I know it's tough, but I promise it will get better. And eventually, it'll be great. And, by the way, the friend you actually do end up going with to the prom? Yeah, you and he will have a great time. The first boy, the heartbreaker, is not a bad guy, by the way--just a kid like you, trying to navigate his way through the same teen angst and insecurities you are. He turns out to be a pretty good guy in the end.

---Oh--and at the prom, when you double date with your sister, perhaps think about the fact that if both of the guys are wearing white tuxes (I'm not making any judgments here--that kind of thing is cool in the 80s), perhaps having dinner at an upscale Italian restaurant where red marinara sauce is the featured ingredient is not such a good idea. I'm just sayin'. Someone should have thought that one through a little better.

---You may not know it now, but your mom's world is crashing down around her right about now as well. She, like you, will eventually discover that life goes on, and can even get better. But right now? Cut her some slack. When she needs to take a little vacation from everything for a few days, let her. She'll come back, and life will go on.

---That little group of friends that was such a sense of comfort and safety and love last year is the real deal. Across years and miles, that bond is unbreakable. These are the people who will love you your whole life. This is the family you choose. They are the ones who will come back to you.

--Sometimes it seems like you are a bit of an outsider for sticking to your guns about what you believe in. That's okay. Those are the things that make you who you are, and there are people who respect that about you. You might not know it now, but you will someday.

--Summer is around the corner--that stepping stone between high school and college, between childhood and adulthood. It's gonna be a big one, so have the confidence to make the most of it. It's important to look back to see where you have come from, but don't forget to look forward, too.

It's often said that high school is the best time of your life. I can understand that. Rarely do you come back to that place where you feel everything so deeply, so purely, so extravagantly. Each high is unsurpassed, and every low seems like the end of the world. The reality is, though, that high school is a small world, and there's so much more out there beyond those walls. Before you know it, these days will be fading away in the rearview mirror. Sometimes you'll fall as you forge ahead, and sometimes you'll surprise yourself with all that you're capable of. If you make the most of it, if you reach out for all that is out there, the best is yet to come.


  1. Love this idea, may steal it.
    I recently went to a mini-reunion of my dear high school crowd. It was so much fun. I had no idea I missed them so much.

  2. Mrs. Lutjens,

    This may be exactly what I needed to read right now and I'm so glad you posted this; it's extremely relevant to my current predicament. I wish I could see the bigger picture right now, and this helped me put things in perspective. Thanks for sharing concrete advice, unlike most adults who sometimes tend to spit out proverbs. Anyway, Jeremy, you, and I need to get a picture together at prom!

  3. I've had some of these same thoughts over the years...I especially wished I'd enjoyed instead of taking everything so seriously...

    And the advice about your wise and TRUE. :)

  4. There are so many things I wish I'd known at that age. True, my experiences led me to who I am today - but I could have done without learning some of those lessons!

    Really enjoyed this.

  5. Wow. That's a beautiful letter to yourself. You gently make excellent points that ring true to me too.

    And even better, to Parmita. And that has to feel good.

  6. Mrs. Lutjens,
    thank you for everything. For putting my petty drama into perspective. Although my life may seem like it's falling apart, I'm trying to grasp the foreign concept of accepting it and moving on to bigger and better things. This is just what I needed. You're my hero :)
    - Simone :)

  7. Mrs. Lutjens..
    You're a pretty rad teacher