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6 Things I Wish I Knew in High School

Advice for my tender teenaged self

04.06.17
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I was five years out of high school when the film The Perks of Being a Wallflower had me regretting my formative years. Specifically, my failure to more passionately pursue being a teenaged misfit. I had to remind myself that the emotional vertigo of high school could never have been avoided. Not even with a hip pixie cut. Plus, Emma Watson as an outcast is even more of a Hollywood lie than Seth Cohen was for my generation.

There are enough platitudes about high school to shake the eagerest of middle schoolers, pad the lamest of reunions and guide the greenest of screenwriters. Trust me, you don’t want to peak in high school! None of this will matter when you’re older! The cool kids aren’t that cool! The problem is, if any actually helped kids in the thick of it, they’d reverse-engineer themselves out of existence. Such is the magic of those four, decade-long years. Against all expectations, they continue to be predictable as hell.

That said, there are still a few things I wish I’d known when I was scribbling furiously in my journal about why Sonia didn’t tell me, Jen didn’t invite me, Stewart didn’t ask me or whatever I was always going on about. If I could Tom Riddle my way back into that diary, here are seven things I’d scribble to my tender teenaged self.

1. Your tendency to cling to one or two people makes others feel excluded.

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I was what you’d call a bff clinger in high school. I was never good at juggling a lot of friends and, as a result, I hung on to the same one or two people for dear life (sometimes driving them away). My mom once joined me on a trip with my soccer team and, upon witnessing this, told me I was coming off like a brat. I was shocked. In hindsight, it makes a lot of sense, but at the time it was how my social discomfort manifested. I wish I’d known.

2. The people who make you feel left out are just as insecure as you.

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Of course, I never applied my own “exclusive” motivations to others. Instead, when I felt left out, I assumed it was out of malice or because I’d done something wrong. I wish I’d had the wisdom to understand that everyone’s actions were a reflection of their insecurities, rather than my inadequacies. I would have saved myself a lot of heartache and learned to practice empathy much earlier.

3. There are extracurriculars besides sports, you know.

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I don’t regret my high-school passion for soccer and track as many of my most visceral high-school memories are tied to them, but obligating all of my waking hours towards sports narrowed my breadth of experience. My failure to nurture my excitement for art, design or writing lead down a path that — while perfectly okay — took much longer to bend back towards creativity than it might have otherwise.

4. Look beyond your family and town for examples of success.

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To that end, I wish I’d considered my future through a broader, more imaginative lens. I was so comfortable following in my siblings’ footsteps. I never took time to explore all the possibilities of who I could be, what I could try, where I could go. I think I would have been really energized and inspired by girls in far-away places who were breaking their respective molds and doing unexpected things. It took me a long time to tap into a world beyond my own.

5. You. will. not. always. be. this. emotional.

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Okay. This one might not have helped. But damn.

6. Your “lamest” high-school experiences will ultimately be your proudest.

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This is the linchpin for me. Nearly all my traits and endeavors in high school that didn’t register as cool have netted out as huge sources of adult pride. My after-school jobs, my string of unrequited crushes, my try-hard style, my lonely diary entries, my distinct dislike of high school and everything it stood for. I knew, intellectually, that popularity as a jumping-off point for life was a scam — not that it helped — but if only I’d known it worked the opposite way, too. The stuff that left me feeling alienated in high school is almost the only stuff worth remembering.

Illustrations by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.

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  • Hellbetty666

    7. Even your worst professional days as an adult are still miles better than high school. Honestly, it gets so much better.

  • This is really important and relevant for non students as well. I especially like the one about not sticking to the same friends as it makes you seem bratty

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  • Kelsey Loraine

    Yes! #6! I still look back at old journal writings or the angst I felt or just situations I was involved in and appreciate it. The stuff that felt like the end of the world at the time is now my favorites to look back on.

  • I read perks of being a wallflower while in high school and it had a huge affect on me (still haven’t seen the movie for that reason) I really identified w the main character and saw myself as a wallflower. My only high school regret is that I wish I had thought about what I wanted to do next (for college) juuuust a lil bit more. And I should have stayed the f away from boys. They were a huge waste of time. Friendships, on the other hand, I had some really awesome friends.

  • Cay

    Yes to #4. I did a summer program at a college in NYC during high school, and it was massively eye-opening. Like oh, there is a much, much bigger world outside of my suburban town where everyone goes to the local college and then buys a house one street over from their parents.

    I do slightly disagree with #1, though. Some people do better with small groups of friends, and that does not make you bratty – I actually wish that someone had told me that this was okay in high school. Having a lot of friends is not necessarily “right” or “normal.”

    • snakehissken

      IMO having a small group of friends is ok, but not talking to anyone but the two people in your group on a trip is not ok

    • Adrianna

      I don’t think I felt pressure or self conscious about the number of friends I had until I was in college. This coincided with the increased popularity of Facebook. I really do not remember managing friend group dynamics in high school. We were either friends, or we weren’t.

  • yes to #1 … i still struggle with retrospectively being part of a really exclusive group in high school. i kind of knew it, but didn’t really get it at the time (“if they just wanted to hang out with us they could ask!” hah…) and hate that i was associated w that kind of implicit meanness… but other 50% of me is like “yeah but you were 16…” and unfortunately it took a few more years of growing the f up for me understand how my behavior was perceived. still, feel guilty.

    • Lil

      Same, the guilt is still real all these years later!

      When I look back at my 16 yo self, I want to shake her and screm, “Stop being so shallow!!”

  • deee_cue

    Sticking with the same friends also isolates you from experiencing new people. I went through this same issue, but I get kind of “bored” with the same people which outweighs the security of having the same people around. Branching out would kind of offend my closer friends as well and then leave me on my own. Looking back, this was a bigger source of stress than it needed to be. But back then, it felt like it was so REAL and it felt like EVERYTHING.

  • Adrianna

    The most helpful thing I heard in high school was that high school was just four years of your life. That helped me survive domestic violence and severe depression. I put an insane amount of pressure on myself to get accepted to a prestigious college, preferably on scholarship, to the point that I repeatedly clogged my drain with all the hair I lost. (Spoiler alert: I did. And I spent three years of college suffering through PTSD)

    This is my experience as a foreigner, but Americans are obsessed with youth and market it as the “best time of your life.” There is way too much pressure placed on high school and college to be significant and formative experiences.

    I’m 28 years old today. Do I wish my high school and college experiences went differently? No, not necessarily. Adulthood is awesome.

  • Áine Hegarty

    I don’t think I understand how sticking to a few friends makes someone bratty. Can someone explain? I feel like that only makes sense if you are purposely excluding others.

    • deee_cue

      It creates an aura of exclusion, whether purposeful or not.

  • HALEY I knew we were cut from the same cloth. I dedicated pretty much my entire life up until about 19 to soccer. (Ended up quitting and walking away from a scholarship because I knew it wasn’t right for me.) And regret not spending more time in high school and college on other extracurricular shit, specifically artistic ones. Damn.

    So this is for both of us: WE ARE STILL SO YOUNG AND WE CAN DO ANYTHING WE WANT JUST WATCH

  • Sheila T.

    i know this is meant for high school but it is extremely applicable to my 22 year old life????

  • Alice

    If I could go back and talk to my hs self I would tell her MATH ISN’T THAT HARD

    • Grace B

      Agreed re: math. When I am learning something new at work, I sometimes think, “uh, I totally could’ve done math back in high school if I can handle THIS”

      • Alice

        I don’t know how but I ended up with this weird block when faced with math problems in a test situation. I wish I could revert it!

  • Alexis Thomolaris

    As someone who ventured far far away from their hometown and all it stood for, I cannot agree enough with #4. If I hadn’t gotten out of my comfort zone (uncomfort-able zone might be a better descriptor) and struggled with unexpected homesickness and culture shock for that first semester of college, I would’ve never found my “happy place” or my lovely group of friends. It’s crazy that I still randomly run into high school friends at bars who tell me how great I look/am doing and how sorry they are for my lack-luster feelings towards high school. I consistently laugh, say “that was forever ago” and roll my eyes. Those four “decade long” years do not define you. In fact they showed me who I didn’t want to be and gave me the motivation to be the best version of myself in college.

  • Lil

    Yes to everything! Especially #4. I decided to go the local state college just because that’s what everyone else did. I never thought twice about how a private or out of state school could benefit me (Only saw $$$ signs back then).

    In regards to #5: Um, I was one whiny, little brat…

  • Claudia Langella

    This really gives me hope for the future. As a junior in high school, who is really unsure of everything this time of year, I really needed this! Thank you Haley!!

  • Abi

    7. Feminist is not a dirty word

  • I’m about to graduate high school this June. it’s nuts!!! I wish I had been more expressive of my style instead of caring about how my peers thought of me. It would’ve been embarrassing to look back on, but it would’ve definitely made high school much more memorable!

  • 20 oz filet

    As I reflect on my days as an insecure teenager, I often wonder, “what if?” I connect with many of these points, especially 3&4. But honestly, it’s the nature of the beast. I read articles like these as a teen and had positive role models in high school, but at the end of the day teenagers are assholes. In their eyes, sports will always be cooler than the arts. A new kate spade bag will always be cooler than one from target. Regina George will always be cooler than Janis Ian. You get older, find your groove and then laugh at yourself being such a F%*! loser.

    As an aside, would some of these regrets/thoughts be more targeted towards people that grew up in suburbs or rural areas? For me, kids who grew up in metropolitan cities or college towns always seemed so much more mature and open minded than others.

    • Adrianna

      “In their eyes, sports will always be cooler than the arts. A new kate spade bag will always be cooler than one from target. Regina George will always be cooler than Janis Ian.”

      My high school in eastern Pennsylvania had about 2,000 students, large enough where no one really stood out. No one was “the cool girl.” Student athletes were made fun of for constantly losing games. The district was big enough for every mediocre student to play field hockey or soccer if they wanted to. I was an art kid, and I remember very different types of kids were impressed. You got made fun of if you wore a Kate Spade bag, because 99% of the student population shopped at Target.

      I moved there from a small school in urban New Jersey. I struck by the immaturity and close-mindedness in Pennsylvania, but felt way more pressure to dress in certain clothes in NJ. My school in NJ was 500 students, 7th to 12th grade. Mostly Polish immigrants, but also immigrants from different Asian and Middle Eastern countries. The school had significantly less resources, and it was competitive to join any sort of activity or sport. The football quarterback was literally the most popular kid in school.

  • G De Siena

    “Plus, Emma Watson as an outcast is even more of a Hollywood lie than Seth Cohen was for my generation. ”

    I am dead.

  • Nat Ch

    I took a lot of pride of being a nerd during high school, when nerd wasn’t a cool thing yet. I knew, in some way that wasn’t defined with words, that I was something else than the crowd of highschool. Now that I think of it, I don’t know if I was a nerd-nerd, maybe I was an obnoxious know-it-all and we know that that never became cool. Aaaanyways…

    There were times when I felt bad for not feeling pretty or cool or wanted, but eighty percent of the time I felt special instead of left out. Until these days, though, I don’t like having anything to do with highschool things (parties, get togethers, etc.) because I remember more vividly the part of feeling left out.

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