One of the little mental games we play sometimes is the following: Would you go back to an earlier time in your life if you could take back with you what you know now. Often this is asked in the context of high school. Certainly if I could take the me that exists today and go back to high school, I would hope I’d do better in various ways. I’d (probably) actually be able to ask a girl out on a date without the attendant flop sweat that accompanied that in high school. But, if you think about it, the image of a guy with the brain of a mid-40s (okay, maybe late 40s, but SHUT UP!) trying to ask out a 16 year old girl would be more than a little creepy. So, maybe that’s not a good game to play…
But, if there was a time you couldn’t pay me enough to ever go back to and relive, either with or without what I know now, it’d be Junior High School. Specifically, where I grew up, grades 7-9. So, call it ages 12-14. Those were horrible, horrible years. It’s probably not unique to me that my PTSD nightmare to this day may well have the familiar elements of being late for a class and not remembering my combination to my locker. Very Junior High.
Recently I saw a video blog by the Young Adult author John Green where he is thinking back to middle school (Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u90dGnKhhlk). In it he challenges the assumption that those years supposed to be somehow amazing. They often aren’t. Certainly, for me, they were not. He references a great and relevant quote from Robert Frost: “The only way out is through.” Yes, sometimes, it’s enough to just survive and get through it. Junior High was that way for me. I was happy to have survived and you couldn’t pay me enough to go back.
Junior High is all about transitions. You’re going from elementary school where you spend all day with your class to having individual classes with different people in each class. Suddenly, where it was at least acceptable to be smart, now smart was not only not cool, it was something to be hidden. It was not attractive, so far as I could tell, it was not something to be proud of, it was something to keep hidden to avoid becoming that person who screwed up the grading curve.
And the transitions weren’t all about school. Puberty was a bitch. Acne that was out of control – and this was before there were many effective treatments, I wore glasses and we couldn’t afford contacts so, with my prescription, it was very large, very thick lenses. Between seventh and eighth grade I grew a ridiculous amount. In my picture with my Mom at the yearly Mom/Son & Dad/Daughter night for seventh grade, I was several inches shorter than her. The next year I was many inches taller than her. I recall having aching legs from the bones growing, legs that hurt so much I couldn’t sleep and I just wanted it to stop. And the hair… Hair growing in new and unexpected places. With that came the need to shower pretty much constantly so as to avoid the funk that is a teenaged boy.
As a result of this, I felt as though I didn’t really have many friends to hang out with, I didn’t feel like what I was good at (school) was appreciated by anyone, it was more something to hide. I swam, but that wasn’t a school sport, so as far as anyone else knew, I wasn’t in any way athletic – and truth be told, aside from swimming, I really wasn’t. Growing constantly for three years was not conducive to having great control over my body. I was that gangly puppy that runs and seems to be amazed that it’s legs keep getting in the way of where it wants to go. That was me in pretty much every organized school sport.
The Internet gets much maligned, and often deservedly so, for many things. But, one thing I think it can do is provide a wider group to be a part of during a time in our lives that can make us feel so alone and so isolated.
I know I felt alone and betrayed by my body and my emotions and people I thought were my friends. In truth, they were certainly dealing with many of the same problems I was, but because we didn’t talk about it, I know I felt like I was the only one going through it.
There’s another popular notion that’s come up over the last few years and that’s the idea of what you would say to the younger version of yourself if you could.
It’s a comforting idea: What wisdom would you pass along? What future issues would you warn them about, to try and get them to make a different choice? “Go to that party! Ask out more girls, you really won’t die from it!” Mostly, for me, it’d probably be a variation on the now familiar message of: It gets better.
But, here’s the thing: I’m also a strong believer that when I was that age, and I certainly saw it to be true for my own kids, you can hand a teenager gold in form of advice that can make their lives easier and better and they will often reject it because they simply don’t have a framework on which to hang the advice.
I think back to things I used to try and tell my kids and it would seem as though it would go in one ear and out the other. And, often, they’d later fall in to exactly the hole I was trying to warn them about. But, the thing is, until they fell in that hole, they didn’t really know what the advice meant. They had no framework.
I was talking with my son Brian and he was telling me a story about how a piece of advice I’d given him years before finally made sense because he was able to recognize the framework on which to hang it before it gave him trouble. So, there is evidence that it does go in one ear, but it may stick around in some form to be useful later. Or, it may not be something they can really internalize until they are older and then the lightbulb goes on and they figure out what the hell it was you were talking about way back when.
So, sure, if I could I would tell a younger me, “It gets better! You’re going to end up with someone who is an amazing partner, who you truly enjoy spending time with and who really is your best friend! You’re going to have wonderful kids who will challenge you but you’ll be so proud of them. You’ll have a great career and you’ll get to work on hard problems where you get paid for being smart and solving those problems. In fact, it’s a pretty amazing life!”
However, I have a feeling that a younger me would certainly not have believed older me and, additionally, that really doesn’t do anything for suffering through the hell that is Junior High. And that just leaves us again with Mr. Frost: “The only way out is through.”