Thirty-two years ago, I was “fresh out of high school”. My elders told me that I had my “whole life ahead of me”. To a 17-year-old high school graduate, those words mean very little. I wasn’t thinking about the rest of my life; I was just happy to be out of school. I was FREE! Back then, it was a big deal. For a 17-year-old girl, freedom means not having to study anymore. True, I planned to go to college, but that was supposed to be “different” because we’d heard stories about college life. The parties! The college GUYS. We were in “grown-up” education now. And we thought we already knew it all.
High school was excruciating for me. The dynamics of my household changed, beyond my wildest dreams. Apart from adjusting to high school, I had a lot more to deal with in my life. My innocence was over. I became more aware that the world wasn’t such a nice place. I already had scars from having to grow up so fast. My growing pains weren’t physical, but mental. The social awkwardness we all experience, as we go through puberty, was exacerbated by verbal abuse inflicted upon my mother and me, on a daily basis, by my alcoholic father. Back then, we didn’t talk about such things because it was a taboo subject. Nobody dared admit having such problems because of the shame and guilt.
Life in an all-girl Catholic private school wasn’t easy. My father drank because he got laid off from his job. My mother worked to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. My father drank the wages he earned at a local bar that hired him to help out. We weren’t well off, but we got by. Only just. I wasn’t the typical private school student. My parents wouldn’t dream of buying me designer clothing and accessories. I felt grateful for having to wear uniforms, as my “fashion-sense” left a lot to be desired; I didn’t need the added pressure of having to decide what to wear to school every day. Invitations to my house were out of the question. I couldn’t bring anyone home so it seemed easier to act aloof than to risk people wanting to come over after school. The shame of alcoholism kept me isolated, from all but a handful of friends.
My self-esteem plummeted. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. My father was oblivious to the torture he put us through. I spent most of my time, avoiding being alone with him as a defense mechanism. My heart was hurting to a point where I didn’t care about much else, apart from seeking approval from the boys I dated. I was an honor roll student in elementary school. Yet, when I started failing my subjects in high school, nobody thought to ask me if there was a reason. My mom was too close to the situation to realize what was going on with me; additionally, she was trying to cope with being the sole breadwinner and having to live in self-preservation mode. She raised me very well, despite the hardships but, unfortunately, she administered discipline for bad grades, as opposed to finding out why I was getting bad grades. I dealt with twice the punishment ~ first, for having to go through the constant, daily verbal abuse and again for the lasting effects of it which resulted in my lack of concentration and, eventually, my poor grades. I do take responsibility for the fact that I didn’t make more of an effort in school at the time; I am simply stating that I truly wish that someone had recognized that there were more serious issues behind the lack of effort.
All of that said, I graduated from high school with two best friends. Although we went through periods of distance and no contact, we managed to reconnect through the magic of Facebook and stay the best of friends, even now. Facebook brought most of our former classmates together again and there’s a different dynamic some 30+ years later. We have experienced ups, downs, personal loss, illness, etc. Some of our classmates are no longer with us. With the maturity and wisdom we’ve acquired with age, we’ve come to realize that education is important and high school drama isn’t.
If I had any advice or words of wisdom to pass on to future generations:
~ Share your experiences, however bad they are, with a trusted friend, teacher, relative, counselor. Opening a dialogue improves chances of getting help. Experiencing abuse or living with an alcoholic parent/relative is nothing to be ashamed of; it’s not your fault. Finding someone who understands is important for all concerned.
~ Failing grades are often a cry for help, particularly when there isn’t a history of failing grades.
~ Education is important and should be taken seriously.
~ If you experience confusion about any issue, talk a trusted relative, teacher, counselor. The wisdom and experience of someone older will give valuable insight and guidance, which will help prevent mistakes.
~ Realize that high school is difficult enough for everyone. Very few are immune to acne, social awkwardness, braces, glasses, bad hair days, fashion mistakes, etc. Don’t judge others based on anything genetic or other factors beyond their control. Bad choices and nasty behavior, however, are fair game.
~ Be a good friend. The more friends one has, the easier it is to get through high school.
~ Overcome labels which divide. Everyone isn’t the same. Everyone, regardless of their interests, adds a special dimension to life in high school. The secret is to have a well-rounded circle of friends.
~ Adopt a ZERO-tolerance policy on bullying. Those victims are someone’s little brother/sister, son/daughter, grandson/granddaughter, niece/nephew, cousin, friend.