This is it. We're six weeks away from my daughter Brigid's first day of high school. To say we haven't been planning for this moment since she was four years old would be a lie. We live in Cincinnati. That should sum it up for everyone who lives within the 275 beltway. But for those of you outside it, I may need to take a few minutes to explain.
There is only one question you get asked when you meet someone new in Cincinnati. It is simply: Where'd ya go to school? When we moved here 12 years ago, I foolishly thought the people asking me that question wanted to know what college or grad school I went to. Uh, how wrong I was. They wanted to know the high school. I said Danbury High. This was not helpful. They looked at me confused. Shook their heads, "Don't know it." So I needed to further explain that I wasn't from Cincinnati, and that Danbury was a public high school in my hometown back in Connecticut. Some looked disappointed. What could they do with that information? Without the name of a local or private high school they couldn't appropriate me to my correct place in the Cincinnati caste system--an alum of St. X, Moeller, St. Ursula, Ursuline, MND, Elder, McNick, Seven Hills, the Summit, SCPA, Walnut Hills, and on and on and on. By getting a high school name from me, they could tell which side of town I lived in, who my friends were back then (and therefore probably still were right now), what type of family I came from (ahem, rich, poor, middle class, East side, West side), what religion I practiced, if I was smart, stupid, athletic, artsy, and finally, what color I bled (purple, blue, red or green...depending on the school colors, of course).
When my daughter entered kindergarten, a mom sidled up next to me in the parking lot at after-school pick-up line, dropped her sunglasses on the bridge of her nose, and asked, "Where are you going to send Brigid to high school? Do you think they'll get what they need here to get into a good school?" She looked deeply concerned. I could tell she spent a lot of nights awake worrying about whether or not her kindergartner was getting prepared properly to get into the all-girl school she had attended. This high school stuff was serious business.
To say I didn't think about it would be a lie, too. Somehow between the two years that my three-year-old turned into a kindergartner, I too had been appropriately brainwashed into thinking that where I sent my daughter to high school might be the single most important decision I make in her entire life. I had one relative even say to me: "It doesn't matter where she goes to college. The most important thing you can do is send her to a proper high school."
My god. What planet am I living on? I remember thinking after hanging up the phone.
Needless to say, I swam back up to the surface of the Kool-Aid pool I had fallen into, caught my breath, and got my wits back. I realized that there were a hell of a lot more decisions that mattered--will matter--and that where she goes is the least of them. Rather, instead of talking about "where"--for the past year--we've talked about what (what's it going to be like, what to avoid, what to take on), how (how to survive the workload, navigate your way through a completely different school, study, make friends), who (to hang out with, get to know, who to avoid), and when (when to give up, when to start new things, try new things, date).
Though Brigid and I talked a lot, there is so much I want her and her friends to know, but mostly here are the main takeaways.
To my daughter, and anyone else, who is about to start high school: 10 tips to get you through it...alive, safe, healthy...and only moderately scarred.
1. Where you go to high school DOES NOT MATTER anywhere else--not in this state, country, world, or galaxy. We have this conversation quite a bit. We have to remind each other (and sometimes other people around here) that once you leave this city, go to another college, state, or country, no one is going to give a rat's ass what the name of your high school is. It's meaningless. Truly. What matters is what you learn within the school and how you use that knowledge every day of your life and how you treat everyone you meet. If you are 20, 30, or 70 years old and still judging people by the side of town or the river they come from and what high school they attended, it doesn't matter how amazing the school is that you went to, you haven't learned a darn thing.
2. Do not talk trash, spread gossip, or in any way betray another's confidence. One of the best pieces of advice I got going into high school came from my older brother, Sean. "Be nice to everyone and keep your mouth shut, kid." He wasn't a man of many words, but it didn't take me long to figure out what he meant. Word travels fast in high school. (Yes, it did even way back in the Dark Ages of the nineties--way back before cell phones and social media). So if you don't want anyone else to hear what you're saying about someone, then you shouldn't be saying it ever. At all. Anywhere. Especially on social media. If you hear gossip, don't repeat it. If you get it direct from the source, don't betray your friends' confidence and tell anyone else. A secret is not a secret once someone else knows. And be careful who you share your own secrets with, because high school friends are fickle. Your friends today may be your enemies tomorrow. Someone who knows something about you that you don't want anyone else to know has the potential to damage your reputation with a quick tweet or text. If you are clear from the beginning that you won't be part of talking smack about anyone, people will stop telling you stuff. But if they can't help themselves, do your best to change the conversation. Walk away. If someone wants to tell you what a bitch so and so is, and you've never met the person, by all means say you've never met the person and move on. High school is not a FCI; other people's enemies are not your enemies. If you're around people who talk trash all the time about other people, it's time to find new friends. Because the old adage how they do one thing is how they do everything is no joke. Don't be foolish. If they are comfortable bashing others with you, don't think for one second that when you get up and walk away they aren't trashing you. It may suck at first. Mean girls can be mean (surprise, surprise) to those who don't join in the hating with them. But, their insecurities will get the best of them eventually. Just don't be there with them when it all comes crashing down. (Watch Mean Girls for the 900th time to remind you of how epic it can get). There are plenty of confident, smart, funny, and friendly people in high school who don't need to rip others down to feel cool or superior. They're too busy quoting Homerisms (the Simpson kind) or discovering the latest music or books. They're interesting, quirky, and have better s@#t to do than talk about other people.
3. Do not be the victim of your own story. Get outside yourself and think of others. Okay, here's my Irish-mother-rant moment. Give me one. Here it goes: Some kind of switch gets flipped in high schoolers' brains. For some reason they enter the halls of the high school and they want to self-narrate the drama that makes up the totality of their short 14 years. (Science has a lot to say on this, like this article in the NYT). Teens want to cast their parents as the evil villains, their friends,teachers, siblings, or cousins, too, and themselves as the victim, the heroine, the damsel. Everyone is against them. No one understands them. No one has ever had it as hard. No one has ever been more lonely. More ugly. Had to take the bus. Work. Babysit their brother or sister. Awww, poor things.... Come on! I know you're better than that. You know your parents love you. Screaming "You don't love me. You're trying to ruin my life..." is like totally the world's most worn-out teen cliché. Volunteer at a shelter. Get a minimum wage job and work beside people who really have to survive on 9 bucks an hour without parents at home making them dinner, making sure they get to bed at reasonable hour, and filling their Vera Bradley lunch bags with organic yogurt and Vitamin Waters. Look around and count your blessings. Read some memoirs. (Try What is the What, The Glass Castle, A Long Way Gone to get started) . Watch the nightly news. Read the newspaper. You might discover that some girls dodge bullets on their way to school. Other girls are raped walking to their village's only bathroom at night. Some students study by candlelight because they have no electricity in their village. And there are some girls in this world who are not even allowed to attend high school, read books, and sit beside boys and learn. They are married at 13 to strange men and have babies already. So when the temptation strikes to begin to cast yourself in the High School Drama Starring You, stop. Think. Pick up the clothes off the floor, wash a dish, change a toilet roll without being asked, and thank your lucky stars you have parents who care about what time you come home and who want to give you a hug--even when you're squirming and angry and pissed off for no other reason than that you're 14 and have no choice but to live with these awful people who feed you, shelter you, chauffeur you to the mall, yoga classes, babysitting jobs, ball games, and in their spare time work full-time to keep the roof over your head.
4. Don't let fear of being judged keep you from meeting new people, trying new things, or doing the things you have always loved. Now I know my previous rant would presuppose you have a perfect life and nothing bad has ever happened to you. But, in reality we all know everyone has something they're dealing with. And teens are no exception. I get that. Some kids have serious issues. And all teens have varying degrees of anxiety, insecurities, self-consciousness, and phobias. (Again, I refer to the NYT article Why Teenagers Act Crazy). But, like I tell you daily: No one cares as much about you as you care about you. No one is looking as closely to your pores, your bangs, the cuff of your shorts, the length of your socks, the color of your lip gloss, the snug-ness of your t-shirt, the infinitesimal flap of fat under your armpit (I believe that is called--skin) no one else but you can see. No one is worried about whether or not you're wearing last year's Sperry's or this years (and if they do, they're is something seriously wrong with that). Don't let your anxieties, self-consciousness, and fear of being judged prevent you from doing ANYTHING. Ever. Things that you think people are looking at--they are most definitely not. Not even close. They're too wrapped up worrying about the size of their own pores, the sheen of their own hair, and the size of their own 000 J. Crew pants, to give a second thought about any of your perceived inadequacies. And if you think for one second the girl with the perfect hair, skin, face, and clothes doesn't hate something about herself or never feels insecure, then you're smoking something. Because the reason she has perfect hair, skin, clothes, and spends four hours every morning working out and getting ready for school is precisely because she is insecure and self-conscious. You're not alone. Everyone is afraid. Everyone feels like their faking it. Everyone wants to fit in. Everyone is trying hard to be liked. Don't be so afraid of what others think of you that you stop doing the things you love--whether it's singing, trying out for the school play, drawing, sewing pajama bottoms, reading, and yes, even listening to Justin Bieber (even if you're the only one).
5. Speaking of doing anything to be liked...Don't be an idiot on social media. I wish that summed it all up. But, apparently you have to be very specific about this topic. As I often say it to you before you tell me to "Stop, just stop," you're self-worth can not be measured in Likes on Facebook or Instagram. Just because someone posts 30 pictures of herself a day and get likes by other girls who post pictures of themselves 30 times a day does not mean they're pretty, liked, or cool. It means they need to get a job, read book, or do something else with their time. And though you only just joined Instagram and Pinterest, and I follow you on both, and we have very specific rules of engagement, there are so many things I still need to warn you about. Just because you've got privacy settings, you know that doesn't meant someone can't screen capture something and spread it around to kingdom come. And I know you're well aware that anything that gets texted, tweeted or posted might as well be texted, tweeted, or posted to the universe's refrigerator for all to see and will remain there for all time. If you're not comfortable with that, then you shouldn't be doing it. I know you know our no-daily-selfie rule. You don't need to take a daily outfit picture like some of your friends do, or kiss and hug your friends in skimpy outfits to get likes from boys (I know some of your friends do), and you're not allowed to friend someone you don't know personally--as in talked to, hanged out with, or go to school with. You're not to befriend older people or parents of friends. You're not to disparage others or vent or rant or say anything stupid (and I am the judge of what is stupid or mean or ignorant or misinformed or racist or elitist or smug or just plain crazy). This may seem lame. It may seem cruel. But, you know colleges will look at these sites. You know that other people--even relatives--will as well. And I am your mom and it's my job to keep you safe and healthy and protected from very bad people. Speaking of healthy...Use your time there wisely. Get on and get off. Find out what's going on. Keep up. Say hi. Stay connected. Everyone is at different schools now. I get that, too. But, you don't need to hang out on social media all day and take Buzzfeed quizzes like I know all your friends do. You don't need to identify yourself with what Disney Princess you are or what character of Gossip Girl you mostly likely resemble. If you need a reminder of who you are, I can point to the name on your bedroom door: You are Brigid. Unlike your friends, be happy you're not saying things like "I always knew I was the Little Mermaid!" or some preppy-mini-skirt-wearing debutante living on the Upper East side. Trust me. You'll thank me later. If you need to take a Buzzfeed quiz to figure out who you are, we've got bigger problems than whether you should be on social media. Yes, they're fun. And yes, we adults use them and laugh. But, teenagers can sometimes think they are what people tell them they are. Refer back to previous Why Teens are Crazy article. We have to be careful what identities any of us cling too closely to. Whether they're the ones Buzzfeed is telling us we are, or they are the ones our friends on social media are saying we are with their favorites, thumbs up, and comments. You are more than a profile. A tweet. A quiz. A like.
6. Say "No thanks" when some says, "Let me show you something..." Yes, thisphrase is the universal warning to get the hell out of wherever you are. Nothing good comes after these words. In my experience (never said I was the perfect teen/young adult), it's usually means one or more of the following is coming:
Guns (possibly loaded from a careless parent's closet)
A gross body part of an equally gross person
Something harmless (Occasionally, though not often...so it's not worth the risk)
So when someone says "Wanna see something?" Or, "Come over here...I got something for you," ask them what it is first, and if they can't tell you and then say, "Come on...don't you trust me?" Know that this phrase is also the universal code for: Do not trust this person.Ever. Trustworthy people don't have to convince you to trust them. Politely walk away. You don't have to rat them out, but if you do...or want to talk about it...that's fine too. Find a trusted friend or parent. Just don't ever say: SURE! Nothing ever good comes of it. You can't un-see some of the most depraved pornography the internet has to offer and you can't undo an addiction to heroin or meth or even alcohol. (Sure you can attend rehab, destroy your parents life-savings while trying to get clean, and spend the rest of your life sitting in a church basement at AA meetings at night, but why even go down that path in this first place?) It only takes one hit to get hooked for life. Say you start at 14, 15, 16, or 17--congratulations, you're well on your way to screwing up the rest of your life, because you wanted to be "cool" for 10 minutes in front of dumb friends who won't be there cleaning up your vomit, checking you into rehab, or lighting candles over your coffin after you take too much one night. Sound melodramatic? Well, I guess you could say I have known some addicts. And it usually didn't end well. And as for guns? I know you think that I am joking. I am not. I am a realist. This is the world we live in. We live in the U.S. of A. People love their Second Amendment. The chances of your friends' parents owning a gun, especially in these parts, are pretty high. Last week a 13-year-old shot another kid while showing him his father's gun in a Cincinnati neighborhood. Not everyone is smart. Not everyone locks them up. Not everyone thinks that guns are a big deal. Well, they're a big freakin' deal to me. And I don't want my daughter's face shot off when I send her to a sleepover. So don't ever, ever agree to look at, hold, or see a gun. Ever. And, the body parts thing. Yeah, there are super gross people out there. I'd say stay away from them, but most gross people don't walk around with signs on their shirts saying: "I am a total creepazoid." A good tip-off that you're dealing with a creepazoid? When they say things like: "Here let me show you something..." Or "You can trust me." You can't. Run. Run as fast as you can.
7. Your body. Your boundaries. You call the shots. You. No one else. You. When and if you're in a relationship with a boy (bridge best crossed when we come to it), you determine what you're ready for. Practice saying no. Practice speaking up. It's okay to be impolite. It's okay to walk away. And when you're just out and about...walking down the street, in the hallways of the high school, or on your way to work, you don't have to smile at someone who is cat-calling you as you walk by. You don't have to smile, because they tell you to smile. You're not their puppet. You don't have to dance for them. I wish it weren't this way. But these are things no one told me or warned me about when I was a teen girl. I had to figure it out on my own. And it was scary. Just remember this: No matter where you go, no matter what you're doing, no matter how you're dressed, no matter how you feel, no matter what you look like, if you are a female and need to walk from point A to point B in this world, the sad reality is you will be ogled at or harassed or sometimes even touched when and where you don't want to be touched. You don't have to take that. You don't have to be polite. You can tell them to stop. You can ignore them. If you do these things and they call you a bitch (they will), who cares.You're not missing out. Gentlemen don't make comments about your ass as you walk by. Gentlemen don't stare or make you feel uncomfortable. Gentlemen don't yell obscenities. Walk tall and confident. And be smart. Follow your gut, and if you ever feel uncomfortable, anywhere, for any reason, you call home--day or night--no questions asked. My only priority is that your safe, healthy, and alive. I am not going to judge you or ask you "what you did" to provoke the action. Because I know already: You didn't do anything wrong. At all.
8. That being said: You get what you put out there. So be careful about what you put out...there. Now I am not slut shaming here. I believe I have said the words "Sluts are people too" in the middle of a conversation on occasion, if someone gets too high and mighty about his/her moral imperatives (and I often have to remind the speaker that I had you while I was unmarried and people generously called me a "slut" too during that time instead of lending me a hand with the baby). And, I have to add, I don't believe that girls who wear mini-skirts or tight shirts or bikinis deserve to be ogled at or even raped. Clothing or lack-there-of is not an invitation for anything. But, here's what I want for my daughter, mine, not anyone else's--but you: Brigid. I don't want your self-worth to be equal to the measure of your "thigh gap" or the amount of ass you show out of your short-shorts or the amount of cleavage you can or can't show. I don't want you to think the only way you will ever be liked, or loved, or deemed worthy, and attractive is if you have to put it all out there for the world to see. And time and time again, I have seen girls starve themselves, change themselves (their parents actually pay for their plastic surgeries), squeeze themselves into too-tight, too-short clothes, too-high heels, so they will feel better, look better, and attract a man who thinks they are pretty. They objectify themselves and then they are shocked or hurt when the man who loves them objectifies them or wants them to stay a certain way, look a certain way, be a certain way. They grow up into women who spend hours each day working out to stay "hot" and spend thousands of dollars on products, procedures, and treatments so that the man they initially attracted with their beauty stays in love with that beauty. They don't see that they had and have so much more to offer. And so do you. Remember that. Every day. Wear what you want to wear. Wear what you feel comfortable in. What you feel most you in. But, don't wear something because you think that's what someone else wants. You'll attract the right person for you if you are just being you.
9. You're at school to learn. To learn. To learn. Despite what all the John Hughes movies you've been watching have told you, a hell of a lot more than teen angst and drama goes on within the walls of high school. You're there to learn. And if you stay focused, you'll learn a lot. Some of (not all) the best teachers you'll ever have will be in high school. I can still hear my freshman English teacher's voice reading Romeo and Juliet to us. I can remember every detail of my junior year immersion trip to Washington, D.C. and Williamsburg. I remember doing my summer reading Tale of Two Cities while my family sat by the beach in Cape Cod, and I remember crying so hard that someone thought a friend of mine had died. And it felt like one actually had when I turned the last page of that book. It changed me. I let the books that I read change me. I let the teachers who taught me change me. I let friends who had so many interesting points of views and perspectives change me. Sometimes change is good. I let them open up my mind. I fell in love with books and learning. Was I geek? Yes. Did people call me a geek? Probably. I was too enthralled with my friends Vonnegut, Dickens, and Alcott to notice. Did I make real friends? Sure I did. Do I still talk to all of them. Nope. A handful, yes. One of them I would even call my best friend to this day, but for the most part, we went our separate ways. We picked colleges all over the U.S. We met our spouses. Got married. Had kids. Lived our lives. Turns out those high school friends weren't "everything." And I am so glad I didn't make choices of what high school I went to, what college I went to, what drink I drank, what car I got into, or what guy I did or didn't sleep with based on what my teenage "friends" wanted me to do or thought of me. I did what was best for me.
10. No matter what you do, what happens, who you're friends with, what grades you get, what college you do or don't get into, I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I want you to be healthy, safe, strong, and alive. I know happiness is not a guarantee. High school can be rough. Peer pressure can be rough. Teachers can be rough. Homework, work, extracurricular activities, siblings, parents, friends can be a lot to juggle. It's not going to be easy. It's not going to go perfectly. You will mess up. I will mess up. You'll fail. You'll learn. I'll fail. I'll learn. There will be things that happen that neither of us will foresee. But, no matter what, you have to know that I will be there every step of the way. You may not like me. You may even hate me. You may think I don't understand. You already think I am uncool. And I know there are parents who let their kids do EVERYTHING, but know that I will never be like anyone else but me. And I am okay with that, and I hope one day, you'll grow up and be totally okay with being who you are, too. Because who you are is wonderful. Beautiful. Intelligent. Smart. Funny. Creative. And so much more.
And you, my dear, are enough.
Now get to bed.