Dear friend, acquaintance, fellow inmate of the public education system, or whatever other label you prefer,
Last week, an old photo popped up in my Facebook newsfeed—the only musical I ever participated in after a friend conned me into auditioning for the chorus. There we were, the junior class in our outlandish Seussical costumes, grinning for all of social media to see.
Soon, the comment section turned into a heartwarming trip down memory lane…so I decided not to write the first thing that came to mind, which would have gone something like this:
“Seriously, I’m SO SORRY to all of you who were forced to interact with me in high school.”
Apparently I don’t do nostalgia correctly. My bad.
At first, I was surprised by my gut reaction. After all, I wasn’t a bad kid. Creative, overly cheerful, and a little bit weird (fine, significantly weird), but not so horrible that I’d need to apologize for my existence. But as I looked at sixteen-year-old Amy, I kept remembering things I wish I could go back and change:
The fifth period science class where I heard them call the kid behind me “worthless” over and over again, and when there was a pause, I wanted to shout, “He is not worthless,” but I did not do it. I didn’t even turn around.
The summer I wrote, “I hate her” in my church camp notebook, referring to another girl who was chosen over me as cabin leader because she was shallow and beautiful and took duck-faced selfies. And I knew those were not good enough reasons to hate someone and I did not care.
The essay I wrote dripping with wince-worthy bitterness, the lies I told, the girl behind me in choir class with no friends who I never once talked to, the day I made someone cry, and the hundreds of other times I hated and hurt and made myself look good at the expense of others…and no one ever knew.
You might not recognize this description of me if you were there back then. You saw, most of the time, who I wanted you to see, and I was a very good girl.
Our memories are like yearbooks full of carefully arranged photos. I’m pulling out some of the ugly ones today. (But there are lots of lovely ones where I was a loyal friend or an enthusiastic student or a thoughtful writer. Don’t worry, I do not have self-esteem problems, I promise.)
You were there, maybe, in one or more of these pictures: a friend who put up with my general awkwardness, a secondary character who interacted with me but didn’t know why I made the choices I did, a walk-on role photobombing one of my least spectacular moments who barely knew my name.
Maybe I judged you a few times. Compared myself to you and felt better or worse depending on the day or the category. Talked about you behind your back. Was secretly jealous of you. Never told you how important you were to me.
We’ll never really know, will we? We don’t get all the sides of the story, and maybe that’s a good thing.
Sometimes I wonder how much I missed those four years. How many stories did I walk right by when I could have joined in and made a difference just by caring?
And then I think, maybe I’m still walking by them, scrolling past them, hearing only the things that relate to me and my life. Maybe there are words I should say but don’t, risks I need to take, people I should not give up on just because they’ve become inconvenient. Maybe my life right now isn’t so different than it was in high school.
I can’t say, anymore, what I wanted to write on that photo. I wanted to caption it with a sincere plea for you to believe that I am not the same person I was.
But…I sort of am.
I’m still awkward, still arrogant and stubborn and impatient, still prone to judging others and talking only about myself, with a lot more going wrong inside than you’ll ever see on the outside. Ten years from now, I’ll probably be writing an open letter apologizing to all the people who knew me as a twenty-something, wincing at my various immaturities and missed opportunities.
Or maybe I won’t. Maybe by then, I’ll realize: I will never be a good girl. I will continue to make a mess of everything I touch. I will have a long list of people I’ve hurt.
Those are things I will do. But they are not who I am. I am God’s. Just like I’m not my awards or grades or gold stars, I’m also not my half-finished conversations, unspoken fears, or failures.
You aren’t either. Maybe it’s more important for me say that than to apologize for my past self. High school is a time where we’re taught to be defined by labels and accomplishments, and I don’t think it ever quite leaves us. It’s always there, lurking in the fears we can’t name: that we are too much, not enough, or both at the same time.
I’m not nearly as confident in my absolute rightness as I was in high school, but here is one thing I am fully confident of: despite the fact that I’m awkward, prideful, fearful, broken, fill-in-the-blank-with-your-weakness-of-choice, God loves me. He loved me at sixteen. He loves me now. And he loves you too.
That’s more than I planned to say, but there you have it.
And it made me think, too—maybe I need to spend less time worrying about who I was, what you thought of me, what I should have done, and spend more time applying the lessons I learned to who I’m becoming.
Thanks for the memories,