Should it matter what we did when we were young?

Watch High School Musical, and the sing-songing cast will make its best case for high school being the best years of your life. Balony! High school was a great many things, but as I went to college, got a job, met my husband and got married, I pretty quickly realized that while it had a handful of bright spots, high school was far from the best of anything, let alone my whole life! I’m not the same person today that I was in high school. I’ve lost touch with many of the friends I had in high school. I’m not interested in a number of the things I used to be in high school. But does that mean it didn’t matter?

Though I can’t stand today’s political discourse, and ink. was never meant to be a place for politics, I can’t help but be drawn in by the recent conversations surrounding the current supreme court nominee and the accusations coming to light from activities that he may or may not have participated in during high school and college. If this post already has your stomach turning, take heart. I’m not looking to dive into the politics of the situation, nor speculate as to the truth of the allegations. However, there’s one particular line of reasoning coming out of the constant spin cycle of this story that I just can’t come to terms with, the idea that because it happened in high school or college, it shouldn’t matter now. What should count in our past and what shouldn’t? When should we leave the past in the past, and when should we dig it up? Should it matter what we did when we were younger, or should we expect that everyone makes mistakes that shouldn’t necessarily haunt them into adulthood? These are big questions that go far beyond this particular nomination hearing and have a lot more to do with how the next generation is growing up. When does what we do matter, and when does it not?

Past

When things go right for young people, we tend to put a lot of emphasis into how much it matters. Shree Bose was a high school senior when she gave a TED Talk on her work with a cancer drug called Cisplatin, work that eventually helped doctors understand how the drug affected certain proteins and accelerated the effectiveness of the drug. Former President Barack Obama referenced Bose’s work in two separate national speeches. Sitan Chen is a concert violinist who, by junior year, had played at Carnegie Hall six times. Michaela DePrince escaped the Civil War in Sierra Leone when she was adopted at age four by an American family. She began studying ballet and as a teenager appeared on Dancing with the Stars and starred in the documentary “First Position” about black ballet dancers in America. Mark Gurman cracked Apple’s code secrets and published them to his high school blog when he was sixteen.

No one is looking at these kids and telling them what they do right now doesn’t matter. If Shree Bose’s work goes on to be instrumental in curing cancer, no one will say it counts less because she did it when she was seventeen. If Sitan Chen goes on to play Carnegie Hall six more times, they won’t say the first six don’t count because he was a teenager. If Michaela DePrince goes on to become the prima ballerina at the New York City ballet, no one is going to say the work she put in as a teenager doesn’t count because she was so young. If Mark Gurman goes on to work for Apple, you better believe that part of the reason Apple wants him is because of the work he pulled off when he was in high school. That they began their meteoric rises as teenagers will be part of their narrative moving forward.

While it’s certainly great advice not to live in the past, the idea that the past does not help shape us into the person that we are, or that it may not accurately reflect parts of today’s realities, is short-sighted. If high school sweethearts go on to get married, people tout that relationship as “fate,” and no one discounts the years they dated in high school and college as counting less because of their age. Those years mattered. They’re part of the story! That my own high school relationship ended after almost two years with a surprise twist that left me with trust issues that extended into trying to date while I was in college is equally as significant to my own story. That it happened in high school did not change it’s impact. In fact, when I started dating my now husband 9 years later, I still told him that story. It defined a big part of how my love life…or lack there of…played out from high school into adulthood. Yes I was young and naive, but it still mattered.

Although I didn’t help cure cancer or play Carnegie Hall or crack Apple’s code in high school, it would be foolish to suggest that nothing I did counts. Getting involved in high school drama very well set me on the course to my current career. My grades and test scores delegated what my options were in choosing a college. The college I chose led me to a certain group of friends, a certain city, and set me on a certain track that has brought me to where I am today. Because I’m in a great place now, it’s easy to look back on all these choices with a certain sense of serendipity. It’s not lost on me that making one different decision…going to a different college…moving to a different city…taking a different job…making different friends…likely would have changed the trajectory of much that followed. Like it or not, the consequences of each decision mattered. And I’m lucky that most of it was good because had it not all been, that would have mattered too.

“We’re quick to say that our past does not define who we are today.  We’re much slower to admit that who we are today may not be enough to forgive the mistakes of our past.”

We can’t pretend like adolescence only matters if you make it through unscathed, and that mistakes aren’t going to count because you’ll get a free pass because of your age. One glance at social media today should tell you everything you need to know about the fact that mistakes made in the present moment are going to linger long into the future. When I was in college, an education professor told us the first week of the program to be careful about alcohol, especially if we were buying it for friends who were underage. Every teaching job in the country, he said, required a background check, and how would it look when a young, 22-year-old teacher had a record of providing liquor to their friends, some of whom were barely older than the kids she would have in her high school class? When I applied for my first job, not only did I go through a background check, they also told me they had Googled me and read some of the articles I had written for the university newspaper. They’d also found some of my high school track scores, and, as a result, I was coerced into coaching middle school track my first year.

Does this mean that every choice we’ve ever made should have the potential to follow us through life? Though some people will claim that they live life without regrets, I’m sure we’ve all done at least one thing that, in hindsight, has seemed pretty stupid. Forgiveness is real. Second chances are real. Not every decision needs to be held under a magnifying glass and judged for years to come. I think we all hope that the statute of limitations on the things we did when we were young and dumb runs out eventually. And maybe it does…but if it does, I think it’s mostly because we have found a way to move on and learn from those choices, not because those choices didn’t matter. And if our poor choices had the potential to affect other people negatively, I think it’s important to understand that the consequences may go beyond our ability to say that we’ve moved on personally.

As a high school teacher, I hope the things my students are doing now matter. If they don’t, what am I doing all day? On an academic level, they will make choices now, take classes now, take tests and apply for colleges now that could well define the course of their life. More than that, however, I better be encouraging strong character development, good choices, healthy decision-making, and critical thinking, because pretending like those skills are going to magically crop up during adulthood is ridiculous. Do I hope they will become better, smarter, more well-rounded, happier individuals? Of course. Like I said, high school should not be the best of anything! But I’ll never tell my students what they’re doing now won’t count because they’re in teenagers. And they need to understand that choices they make now might have consequences past their four years in high school. Any other conversation is not only irresponsible, it’s just not true…and there’s enough fake news out there without us sugar coating this one!

Cheers!

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