I Hope My Daughter Has A Better High School Experience Than I Had, And Here's Why

by Jessica Hoefer-Land
Jessica Land

My daughter is beginning her junior year of high school this week. Even though it was a lifetime ago, I still remember my junior year. It was a difficult time in my life and I have so many regrets, things I wish I had done differently. I’m thankful my daughter has better opportunities than I did at her age. I’m grateful she can be herself and feel confident in the knowledge that it doesn’t matter what others think.

My daughter is excited about returning to school. She is looking forward to taking classes like Criminology and Honors English. She is a person who will stroll into class wearing AC/DC shirts and ripped jeans one day and a homemade skirt featuring teddy bears and pumpkins the next. She quotes Lewis Carroll. She’s teaching herself guitar riffs from Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and the theme music to the movie Pulp Fiction. She bakes bread and watches Mr. Rogers. She listens to crime Podcasts. Her musical tastes are all over the place. She loves everything from the Les Miserables soundtrack to the obscure Primus song.

Her friends are all ages with diverse backgrounds, orientations and ethnicities. She’s introverted and doesn’t want me posting photos of her on the internet. One of her most favorite things to do is hanging out with family. She likes who she is becoming and that’s what makes her so damn amazing. She is everything I wanted to be at her age.

Then there was my junior year of high school …

I hated myself. I battled low self esteem and depression. I couldn’t make decisions for fear of making the wrong one. I kept quiet and didn’t stand up for anything. I just wanted to be liked and accepted. I started my high school career at a Christian private school in California where graduation requirements included a semester of Old Testament, a class on cults (which basically included steps on how to handle a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness at your doorstep), and in my case, church choir because I needed elective credits and my parents believed that singing Christian songs would rid me of the evils that might have snuck in at school.

As far as music, I only knew a couple songs from Duran Duran and The Thompson Twins but could quote every lyric of Amy Grant. My books were mainly the Sweet Valley High series, Janette Oak’s prairie novels gifted to me from my grandma and the entire series of Nancy Drew and Anne of Green Gables. I read the entire Flowers In The Attic series and kept the books hidden under my bed because those books were “from the devil.” My parents made me wear skirts to school three times a week. I would bring jeans and change when I got to school because who the heck makes a rule as stupid as that one? All this to say, the legalism was taking its toll on me.

I think my parents were trying to carve me into a person that played by exact measurements, rules and laws but it only made me want freedom because I felt so confined. Then my family moved to a tiny rural town in Oregon where all the locals had known each other since they were little. I felt alone and completely out of my element in my new high school. I wore turtlenecks, long skirts and penny loafers, thanks to my parents’ strict dress code.

Where my Christian school had the Old Testament Bible classes and anti-heavy metal propaganda, my rural country school offered wood shop as an enviable elective and Future Farmers of America groups. Kids would arrive late to school during hunting season and haul hay during the summers. A fun Friday night was considered drinking beers down at the river.

In both of those settings, I had no idea where I fit in. Neither looked promising to me. I wasn’t sure who I was and I wasn’t allowed to find out. I retreated more and more into myself. I missed more school than I attended and was in a general state of confusion about which direction I would take.

After my transfer from sunny California to rainy Oregon, the only friend I made was the new history teacher. Not in a weird way. My parents let him use our river property on the weekends where he could fish, smoke his pot, use our boat and drink beers undisturbed. I made a deal with him because I was the one who caught him on our property smoking pot in the first place. I wouldn’t report him to the school administration if he would agree to give me A’s in his classes all year. So in a way, we were pretty much best buds (pun intended).

I cheated my way through my other classes as well. Occasionally I would help out a classmate on her biology exams by passing her the answers to the questions I knew (she was having a secret affair with her 30 year old Driver’s Ed instructor and didn’t have time to study), but mostly it was me writing cryptic test answers on my palm for a exam, copying answer sheets off teacher’s desks when they were at lunch and positioning myself so I was sitting next to the future valedictorian on test day.

People assumed I was sheltered and, while my reading, clothing and music choices leaned in that direction, they were wrong. Inside I was a girl raging to be let out and bloom into the person I was meant to be. Even though I didn’t know who that was quite yet, again I just wanted the opportunity to find out. I wanted to believe I was more than penny loafers, a test cheater or an Amy Grant groupie. Depression was taking its toll.

Time has a way of dimming our memories and high school has melded into a blur of bad hair and Whitesnake’s popular ballad, “Here I Go Again.” What I did as a high schooler makes me cringe now that I’m an adult. We all had our moments; it’s all part of being a teenager. To quote Rod Stewart (yes, I’m totally dating myself):”I wish I knew then what I know now.”

I wish I had studied instead of relying on cheating to get by. I wish when I said, “No” to that guy pressuring me for sex, it had meant something. I wish I had told the girl who regarded me with judgment over my bad outfits that her shirt was on backwards. I wish I could go back to the teacher that said I would never be anything and show him my degree. I wish I had been honest with my parents and told them what their legalism was doing to me.

I share this not only as a reminder to myself but as a testament for my daughter. I want her to know she can do hard things. I want her to be true to herself, not someone we as her parents think she should be. I want her to say, “Nope” to anyone who pushes her to do something she isn’t comfortable with and be respected for it. I want her to speak up for the person being harassed. I want her to be a friend, even when it isn’t convenient. I want her to run from legalism and think for herself. I want her clothing, music choices and reading material to be based on her own style and interests, not mine. I want her to encourage the turtleneck, penny loafer wearing girl because even though she seems quiet, she is really cool and is just trying to figure out who she is.

My daughter is proving that my past carries lessons for her — not only for today, but also for her future. It makes all those struggles worth it. But the best advice I can give her right now? Please don’t attempt blackmailing a teacher. It’s just never a good idea.