My 20-year high school reunion is looming, and thanks to the wonders of Facebook, here in sunny Singapore I’ve just had a blast from my suburban Sydney past: one of my former classmates just shared our Grade 7 photo.
My awkward 12-year-old self stared back at me. Pre-braces, pre-tweezers… I hadn’t seen this kid for a long, long time. I like to think I’ve left her neuroses behind. And thank goodness, that hair. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I think we’ve come a long way in equipping our kids with life skills, and encouraging them to embrace differences and learn resilience. But if I could give that dorky know-it-all a bit of gentle advice (yes, I actually did I think I had it all together at age 12), here’s what I’d tell her about surviving high school and getting ready for the real world…
1. BE KIND
I’m going to just come out and say it: I had some hideous moments. I’m not talking about my pimples and monobrow (that’s another story). I thought I was being clever, but I could be inexplicably mean. I drew a bra on a photo of an ex ‘boyfriend’, photocopied it and stuck it up on a bus window during a school excursion. I thought I did a great impersonation of a younger girl with a deep voice. I indulged in so many casual cruelties without a thought of how hurtful it must have been for others – I took a few hits myself and really should have known better.
One of my classmates just posted on our high school reunion Facebook group: “I plead ignorance as a stupid teenager and hope there is plenty of forgiveness happening… and if not, at least selective forgetfulness.” She took the words right out of my mouth.
2. BE EVEN KINDER TO YOURSELF
Even if your mum has thrown you to the wolves with decidedly uncool school shoes, you’ve developed zits you think have deformed your face, or you’re going through a particularly awkward puberty (ahem), nobody cares about these things as much as you do, because frankly, everyone else is just as petrified. Know that you’ll find your tribe, and remember that you shouldn’t have to be somebody you aren’t… believe me, this is something that will keep coming up again and again in life so you might as well start believing in yourself now.
3. STICK BY YOUR FRIENDS
My only real regret is failing to stick by friends when they needed it most. There’s a curious, and all-too common phenomenon amongst girls, which many women look back on in disbelief. You know the drill: somebody in your girl gang becomes a target for either no significant reason or some flippant act of ‘betrayal’. At best, there’s some bitching and eye-rolling until it’s somebody else’s turn. At worst, one of you becomes suddenly ostracised from the group, sometimes not even knowing what they’ve done wrong. Nowadays, it’s ’called ‘ghosting’, and you can hide behind a screen as you wipe someone from your life.
You don’t have to be complicit in this. Question what’s going on, and don’t give into the worst side of yourself for the sake of self-preservation. If I teach my kids one thing about being a decent human, I hope it’s how to be a real friend.
4. WHAT HAPPENS IN HIGH SCHOOL DOESN’T DEFINE YOU
Don’t buy into the label you’re given in high school: ‘geek’, ‘gossip’, ‘the pretty but boring one’… even if you’re one of the ‘cool kids’ – because everything changes and nobody wants to peak at age 15. Life is a pretty good levelling field. And besides, you never know who’ll come in really handy on LinkedIn in 20 years’ time.
Please don’t let your grades define you either. The scores you get now are NOT going to map out the rest of your life. I’m incredibly proud of my friends who didn’t get that magic number in their final exams, but did things their own way, and are now some of the most successful people I know working all around the world. I also wish I’d known about the ‘gap year’. Spending time to travel, try different things and know what you really want to do is priceless – I wish I’d had a bit more life experience before hurtling into university just so I could spend most of my time avoiding lectures.
5. YOU REALLY, REALLY DON’T KNOW IT ALL
Seeing a snapshot of myself having no clue of what was ahead – before experiencing love and loss, working my butt off, moving around the world and wrangling wild children – makes me want to give that kid a big hug. So please, talk to your parents and let them talk to you, because they actually do know a thing or two. And let’s face it, they’re probably much cooler than you.
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