graduation of another kind

Why did you never sneak out of the house? Why have you never dyed your hair?  Why have you never smoked, drank, or snorted something? Why have you never been in a relationship? Why didn’t you leave home to go to college? Why are you so boring? Why did you waste your teen years? Where’s your revolution?

These are the types of questions I get day in and day out. Surprisingly though, they’re not by other people my age, or even curious adults. They’re questions that bounce around in the back of my head, plaguing me with guilt during the quieter moments of my day. I’ve come to the point in my life where I’m turning twenty, just hours separating me from the day I entered this world. But for the past year or so, I’ve been fearing this impending number, down goes the two and the zero, away with the ones and the first two-digit decade. I’ve been afraid of leaving this era in my life that I feel I have left unaccomplished. I feel empty in a sense because I feel like I’ve done teenhood wrong. I haven’t done all that I could to make the most of these years and it’s eating me up inside.

As a suburban teenager who attended the newest public high school in the county, I was about to enter an environment that would differ from the classical high schools of America, those brimming with lockers, landmark hangout spots, and legendary teachers. My high school didn’t have lockers, it didn’t have legendary landmark sites except for the highway that races right behind the school. High school wasn’t going to be like it is in the movies, a form of entertainment that has raised me as a kid and influenced my perceptions.

And it wasn’t. High school was pleasantly better than I expected, though I dealt with friends that didn’t entirely want the best from me and leaned more on the toxic end of the spectrum. By junior year, I found a group of girls who were genuinely funny without throwing others under the bus and were passionate about their extracurriculars. I lived to be around that passion. It was certainly better than middle school, and that was enough to make me content with how the four years went along.

Yet now, in my second year of college, I started reflecting more and more on what I didn’t do. I never was fully invested in clubs or extracurriculars, only dipping here and there into the English Honor Society. I never published anything as a teen, never filmed or directed a movie (film is my passion and this makes me upset), never created something lasting enough to define my being a teenager. Even though my faith and personal beliefs don’t agree with drug consumption and being so excessively drunk you pass out and forget what happened the day before, I still feel like I missed out on the essence of those experiences, the way that memories were created in those moments.

I saw the years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telephone poles, threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three…nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn’t see a single pole beyond the nineteenth. 
– The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

As soon as anyone sees Sylvia Plath’s name, the concept of depression and suicidal thoughts, what it means to go through mental illness and not have the next day guaranteed, come to mind. The Bell Jar is very much about Sylvia’s own experience with mental illness during her college years, basing the character of Esther on herself. Rather than reading the book early on in high school, reading it in the fall of last year, my sophomore year in college, was perfect timing for me. Though this quote from the novel does relate directly to Esther’s depression, I found a separate connection to my own anxiety about the past and the future, time overall.

For me, the quote ties to uncertainty on a whole other level. It’s not just about whether you’ll get to see the next day, it’s also about what the next day will contain and who you will be in the next hour, day, week, month, into infinity. I can’t see who I’m going to be beyond nineteen. I can only look back and judge my teen self. It’s as if my turning twenty has sparked a backward montage of Isabella, ages 13-19, and what was missing in this short film that is her life.

I recognize that what defines a teenager has been largely cultivated by stereotypes in mainstream media, and by common misconceptions that what the kids next to you in class are doing are rites of passage. There are countless articles on the Internet that assure you that the reality of being a teenager doesn’t line up with popular depictions in media. Yet it still seems to bother me that I didn’t do half the things I wanted to in the span of those seven years, or moreover, how others will see me when I tell them of what was lacking.

A while ago, while talking to a couple of close friends about my plans regarding my junior year of college, I mentioned how I was unsure of how to explain my decision of leaving an extracurricular responsibility. One of my friends immediately advised me not to explain myself to the person in charge because her mother always told her that you never have to explain yourself to anyone.

In that moment, I realized how explaining why I didn’t do certain things as a teenager is none of the world’s business. It’s nobody’s business to pry into your life at any point, yet as teens, we thrive off this slow chipping away at the human surface. We love to know what you’ve done so far with your life, for some it even becomes a competition to be the token adventurous risk-taking teenager. But everybody has differing situations and challenges to face; there are those who live below the poverty line and struggle to attend school, there are those who wish they could overcome their anxiety enough to talk to the classmate sitting next to them. To hold someone up to this pedestal of Teenager-ness is unfair and severely distorted.

You don’t have to explain yourself ever, you don’t have to explain why you prefer projecting yourself onto fictional characters rather than heading to the local club, or why you hate the taste of beer, or why the idea of being remotely romantically or sexually involved with a person you barely know makes your skin crawl, or how losing a parent at a young age is never easy.

I recognize that better things are coming, they always are, even if we think they aren’t. I recognize that I have changed as a person for the better. My wishy-washy thirteen-year-old self is not the same person as the girl who now finds decisions to be empowering; I get to choose where I want my life to head.

If high school was okay, then college has been awesome. I didn’t leave home to go to college, another feature of myself that falls into the unconventional teenager box, but I’ve been exposed to so many people and opportunities that make me grateful for my decision. Leaving home for college would have provided me with invaluable experiences, but I’ve flown twice to New York City to see one of my favorite actresses, I’ve learned studying English and French are my passions, that the right people will come along who won’t mind hearing you talk obsessively about your favorite things and will support you in whatever you do. I started seeing a therapist to treat my generalized anxiety, I’ve learned that what’s convenient is not always what’s right for you, that being on my own is a relationship in itself. I’m becoming the president of the French Honor Society at my college, something that if you told high school Me, she would have rolled her eyes at you in skepticism. These are my college experiences and I wouldn’t change them for the world. I’m ready for the next decade in my life, one that I am confident will lead to the best version of myself, one where I finally won’t be afraid to ask for what I want or accept the chances that come my way.

Being a teenager is awesome and filled with once in a lifetime chances, but if you miss out on the popular ideas of what being a teenager is like, you’re not a failure. You didn’t “waste” those seven years, never to regain the chance to define your youth and what living is all about. If that were the case, then why would we have several decades more to go before death comes along and severs life for us? You never have to explain why you did and did not do something, and that goes for any age, but especially when -teen hangs at the edge of a number.

{all artwork credit belongs to original owner)

2 thoughts on “graduation of another kind

  1. Loved it, Isa! while reading it, your words flowed smoothly on my mind as if I was reading a very interesting novel ❤ I think you left a great lesson 🙂


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