I’ve been pushed onto memory lane by my youngest daughter’s graduation from high school. Reflection after 42 years can be interesting: how things have changed, and how little some of that “important” past means now.

They really weren’t the best years of my life. (More)

Enthusiasm…for what?

Watching my daughter prepare for her big day has been fascinating. She’s been down, and up. Everything else seems to have disappeared from her consciousness, yet she can’t wait to get started in college. A month ago she was heartbroken that she would lose so many good friends as they scatter into life. She felt nostalgic about the good times, and even scared about the future. She didn’t seem to remember the times she hurt, and hurt badly.

All that has changed. Now that we’re past prom and into ceremonies, rehearsals, senior breakfasts, and other special events. She has that cap and gown in hand – and her hard-earned honors cord – and she can’t be done fast enough.

Last week at her senior awards ceremony there was an unintentional moment of humor. The principal tried to rally school spirit and get the grads to chant “We are (name of school)” after his every remark about their class accomplishments. They weren’t exactly silent, but their chant was hardly throaty enthusiasm. They may not have their diplomas yet, but they seemed to have already moved on in their minds.

Echoes

My daughter’s senior year has been full of echoes for me. It’s been easy to reach back to those days and remember my own reactions, starting with the astonishment of arriving at my senior year and the realization it was almost over. It all seemed so important then, and now I mostly remember the high points. My high school gave me opportunities to do things I never would have otherwise, from writing, producing, and directing two of my own plays, to representing my school at the Student State Constitutional Convention. Lots of high points.

There were plenty of lows too, times I absolutely hated my life, but they got lost somewhere over the years. Those were years of feeling more adult than I really was, of conflicts with parents as I got ready to break the bond and leave the nest. And there were painful conflicts with friends, and disappointments galore. But I only vaguely remember the hurts. Now, when I look back, I remember the high points – there were few enough – and it would be easy to think, “Those were the best years of my life.”

I might have fallen for the vagaries of memory if my mother hadn’t so often said, “These are the best years of your life.” Her saying that so often made me think: if this is the best, why bother with the rest? I felt that so strongly that I told all of my kids, “Don’t let anyone tell you these are the best years of your life. They don’t come close, and they’ll pass quickly.” The number of times I’ve had to trot that observation out for my kids reminds me that, even though I don’t remember the incidents, those were painful years.

The real reason they were the best years

When graduation day came, I was more than ready to kick the dust off my heels and move on. I see that in my daughter now, the eagerness to taste the apple of life. All possibilities are open, all futures still available. She has made no commitments that she can’t change.  All we’ve asked for is that she’ll try a lot of different things, because she might discover a passion she didn’t even know she had.

And I wax nostalgic for the only thing that really made those the best years of my life: complete freedom to choose my path in life.

In retrospect, nothing else about high school made it “the best years of my life.” I’ve had better times since. But with age comes an easing of passions. The roller coaster of adolescence is painful, intense, totally involved in the small world of one’s friends and school. Every little thing is magnified, often too much so. That’s what made high school so painful for many of us at times, and what in the end makes us so eager to move on. But every detail of life was so fresh, so full of impact. Everything felt new, because it was.

Looking back, I see high school through a different lens than my graduating daughter. They were not the best years. Those have come since. The highs and lows are no longer as intense, the thirst for excitement is tempered by an awareness of consequences I didn’t have back then. I look back and realize that all those friends I thought I would keep forever have vanished into the mists of time. Indeed, they dropped off the radar quickly when I went to college.

Life for a teen is as all-involving now as it was then. But I could see what my daughter can’t yet: most of that overwhelmingly important stuff was transitory.

Things have changed, too

My daughter’s experience was also very different. When I was in high school, I didn’t know what homosexuality was until I was 17. My school had only one black student, and I honestly didn’t understand why he wouldn’t answer when I said “Hello” if I sat next to him. College had to teach me about race, and it was decades before I acknowledged that I had always been lesbian.

My daughter’s class was multiracial, multiethnic. She has friends who have been openly gay since seventh grade. She doesn’t notice race or ethnicity. She and a black student call each other “my twin.” When a teacher heard that one day and asked how they could be twins, it took her a minute to get the point of the question. “I was bleached at birth,” she shot back. She thought the question was absurd, as did her friend.

At her awards ceremony, it was wonderful to see most of the awards go to girls and people of color, who make up most of the student body. In my day no one questioned that white boys got the accolades. Her generation marches forth, better armed for the future. They are more inclusive, more politically aware, committed to turning the tide on the environment and justifiably annoyed with those of us who let things get to this point. Community service is part of their school requirements, and they have a larger sense of their place in the world and what is needed from them than I did.

These may not have been the best years of my daughter’s life, but they have formed her in ways that thrill me and make me proud.

So what about you? Did you hate “the best years of your life?”