5 Things I Wish I'd Known In High School

by Christine Burke
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Recently, I hit a milestone. A big one.

Twenty years ago, I stood with 364 of my classmates on my high school’s football field and got my diploma. As I sat in that crowd on the field as the sun set, my white cap affixed upon my Jersey Girl, Aqua Net-styled hair, we celebrated the highs and lows of our four years in the hallowed halls of our high school. We remembered students tragically lost, we congratulated our high-achieving comrades, and we marveled at those who had actually managed to graduate by the skin of their teeth. We looked forward to our futures and swore we’d “Stay the Same!” and “Never Change!” Our futures were bright, and we were excited. And our hair was huge. HUGE, I tell you.

Since then, I’ve thought a lot about what the Here-And-Now Me would say to the Hair-Jacked-to-Jesus Me (henceforth, HJTJ, because acronyms are fun). Life has been exceedingly kind to me in many ways; however, there are bits of knowledge that the HJTJ Me really could have benefitted from sooner than later. I mean, even just knowing that salons would have revolutionary hair care products for gals with kinky curly hair would have made the early ’90s more tolerable for me. And, if I’m being honest, knowing that Dylan wound up following Brenda to England wouldn’t have sucked either (90210 fans, amiright?).

In the more serious realm, though, I’ve compiled a list of the bigger pieces of truth that the Here-and-Now Me would tell HJTJ Me. I’m leaving out the obvious things like who wins the presidential elections, MJ’s demise, and the fact that scrunchies will no longer be a necessary hair toy. Rather, these are truths that my HJTJ self could have used to make the 20-year journey to now a tiny bit easier.

Here are five things I would tell my high school self:

1. Travel Now, While Your Standards Are Still Low

One of my biggest regrets is that I did not travel overseas more when I was fresh out of high school. With the demands of college and the financial restraints, it always seemed more sensible to work all the summers. I spent my summers chained to a desk doing secretarial work when I should have been backpacking throughout Europe and staying in hostels. There’s a reason they are called youth hostels: They are not necessarily the hotel of choice for a grown-up with more exacting tastes. A trip to Europe with the standards you have as a grown-up costs about the same amount as a year of college. Travel now while you don’t mind sleeping with a bunch of other smelly travelers and while flying coach seems like a treat. Even if you have to pack up your tiny piece of shit, barely running car and make your passengers pay for gas, get in that POS and see the world as cheaply as you can.

2. You Will Be Friends With Everyone Eventually…on Facebook

Let’s face it: High school can be a rough time socially. While I was never a social outcast, I wasn’t exactly Miss Popularity, either. I had my core group of friends and remember my high school years fondly, but I also remember feeling out of place and not cool enough. Although, come to think of it, that might have to do with the fact that when I was allowed to drive to school, I did so in a Celebrity station wagon (that, and I spent the majority of my fall afternoons spinning a flag in white spandex bedazzled with orange sequins. The height of cool, no?

I watched the cool kids from the sidelines, and I’m not gonna lie: I had my feelings hurt a time or two. But, a magical thing happens about 10 years after you graduate: You get over the hierarchy of high school and throw the social rules out the window. You will find yourself “thumbs-upping” that cool kid’s post about being a new mommy, and you will be thrilled for her. And, by 20 years out, you will invite anyone from your senior class to your house if they promise to bring wine and tell you how young you look (as noted above: standards change).

3. Your First Love Helps You Find Your Lasting Love

We all have one: our high school first love. The first person you dated seriously and to whom you said “I love you” and meant it. The person you spent every waking weekend minute with at football games, friends’ houses and local restaurants. The person who, at the tender age of 17, you were convinced you couldn’t live without and whom you locked lips with before sixth-period English at your special meeting spot near the gym. The person who would either be forever known as your High School Sweetheart after you’d married or eventually break your love-struck, high school heart.

Turns out, for me, my high school first love served a second purpose beyond teaching me about heartache: to help me recognize my lasting and true love. My first love and I broke up a few years into college, and while it was sad and hurtful, we both knew it was the right decision. I loved him and he loved me, but eventually, we both found partners who loved us better and who loved us the way we needed and deserved. And, now, 20 years later, we laugh about it on Facebook as we “like” the pictures of each other’s kids. First love is great, but lasting love is better.

4. Styles Change…for the Better

As a graduate hailing from the Aqua Net era, I and my fellow classmates fell victim to many a fashion misstep. Aside from the aforementioned white spandex and sequins, our high school class straddled the age of ’80s style and the advent of grunge. We had big hair, parachute pants, shoulder pads as well as baby doll dresses, construction boots and flannel. Stirrup pants were a necessary part of any wardrobe, and we all ran around in sweaters that would fit Refrigerator Perry comfortably.

When I look back at my photos, I seriously don’t know what we were thinking. I would like HJTJ Me to know that construction boots are not a part of my modern-day wardrobe and that I would never be caught dead in anything made by Cavaricci today. And if I had it to do over, my prom dress would not have been covered in teal sequins and white taffeta (what was it with me and odd colored sequins?!). I still maintain, though, that Liz Claiborne made the coolest purses ever. And fist pump to being united in all the colors of Benetton. Ahem.

5. High School Is Not the Best Time of Your Life

As anyone who watched Beverly Hills 90210, Dawson’s Creek or Saved by the Bell will tell you, people want you to believe that high school is the pinnacle of all the fun you will ever have in your life. The HAN Me calls bullshit on that, thank you very much.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

College is way more interesting, and the word “fun” doesn’t even begin to describe what life is like when you get your first job and have money to burn. Life after college, while terrifying at times, is exciting and it’s when you can selfishly chase the dreams you couldn’t afford in high school and college. Life then takes a turn for the better when you move on to married life and children—a different kind of fun altogether, but nonetheless, life just gets sweeter and sweeter as the years go by. High school is amazing and the memories are fond, but it is by no means the end. It’s only the beginning, thank goodness.

As with any group of people dealing with the fact that it has been 20 years since lockers, cafeteria tables, and teachers who made our eyes roll, an obligatory reunion was planned at a budget hotel in my hometown. It was an opportunity to stand in a room wearing a “Hello, My Name Is” sticker while drinking fruity drinks from the cash bar and stand amongst the people who, in a small way, defined who I have become today. As much as I wanted to at least see that one girl in particular got fat (she did—karma is a bitch), I realized the past was just that: gone and only a tiny, infinitesimal part of my much bigger life.

And so, I decided not to go, opting to pore over the pictures and comments on, you guessed it, Facebook. Truth be told, when I “liked” the pictures of the gal who got tubby, it felt pretty liberating. Hey, what can I say? I still have a little high school angst left in me.

Yes, I remembered the teachers, the friends and the memories fondly. I smiled at the antics on fall afternoons, driving cars and chasing boys. I reminisced about proms, chemistry classes from hell and school musicals that rivaled Broadway productions. Mostly, though, I remembered myself wearing teal sequins and white taffeta and hoping that the best was yet to come.

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