Sentimental Education

    Skip school! Hug a dork! A father’s advice to his daughter on making the most of high school.
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    AUG09 Exurbs OMO imageHigh school is the best and worst of times, that at once liberating and awkward period between youth and adulthood where everything can feel so right and yet go so wrong. When I think about my four years at Elder High School, I mostly feel pleased that I survived, and that I managed, despite myself, to get a decent education. But I also cringe at how much better it all could have been. If only I were a little smarter and a lot less self-absorbed and not so enamored with the band Kansas. Now, nearly 30 years—yikes!—later, my oldest daughter, Maggie, is embarking on her high school journey this month. As a dad, and a writer, this is an opportunity I can’t resist: to use the bully pulpit that this column occasionally provides to offer my unsolicited advice to Maggie and any other incoming freshman willing to read and learn. And so, without further ado, here are my “10 Keys to High School Success.”

    1. Don’t make too many friends at school.

    You’ll have plenty of time to get to know your classmates—you’ll be spending four years with them in relatively close quarters. High schools, especially private ones like yours, can be very homogenous places. So during weekends and summers, make sure you also hang with kids from different schools, and ideally kids of different ethnicities and faiths. You should look for opportunities to befriend people from the west side, too. Even though you’re a life-long east-sider, I maintain dual citizenship, so I can provide the necessary directions, border crossing documents, and translation services needed to meet kids on the other side of town. But let’s think even bigger than that. I’d also love to see you make friends with a peer in another country, perhaps through an exchange program. All I ask is that you choose a beautiful country with a mild climate, one that I would like to visit. Greece or Costa Rica would top my list.

    2. Skip school. A lot.

    For all that you’ll learn in the classroom, there’s plenty to learn outside of it, too. In my senior year, I missed more than 30 days. No, I wasn’t playing hooky so I could cruise Western Hills Shopping Plaza in my radical corduroy bellbottoms. Nor was I faking an illness so I could stay home and watch Fast Times at Ridgemont High on VHS. I was traveling, speaking, and volunteering on behalf of a youth organization. Thanks to this, I got to experience such highs as my first plane ride, and such lows as taking a guided tour of downtown Kalamazoo. These experiences gave me something that classrooms couldn’t. That said, there are things better or more easily learned in school, such as insights into the Enlightenment and the beauty of the Pythagorean theorem, which, trust me on this, beats looking at architecture in Kalamazoo.

    3. Be a cross-dresser.

    One of the few things I did right in high school happened in sophomore English class. Each student had to write and recite a poem. I composed a heartfelt, if poorly crafted, poem about a Tibetan monk selling flowers on Fountain Square. When it was my turn to stand and deliver, I quickly donned a costume: a yellow gown I borrowed from my mother and a bald cap that I bought at a novelty store. I realized that I risked being ridiculed for the rest of my years or having to answer allegations of being a cross-dresser. Despite the internal debate that I had with myself up until the moment I put the costume on, I did it anyway. It played out just as I had hoped: the teacher and my classmates found the humor in it and realized that putting on a dress—especially in an all-male school—took, well, balls. Don’t let the fear of ridicule prevent you from following your gut and being yourself, even if that means wearing a costume.

    4. Don’t go to football games.

    Yes, this is what you’re supposed to do every Friday night in the fall. So don’t. Instead, beyond whatever sport you may choose to play (if any), cheer on one of the less popular teams, such as track or golf. There’s nothing wrong with football, but it seems that we all too easily go along with the crowd and do, say, and think the same things. In other words, we have the tendency to shout the same cheers, to support the same causes of those around us without pausing to think about it. One day you wake up in your 40s and realize that you’re still doing a lot of the same things and shouting the same cheers you were in high school. Mostly because everyone else is. It’s an easy and comfortable place to be, but true insight, achievement, and fulfillment are rarely found where the rest of the crowd is.

    5. Join some teams. And then quit.

    For a brief, glorious moment in high school, I was a star member of the cross-country team. I won the freshman and reserve league championships. While no one predicted an Olympic future for me, I rarely finished outside the top three in any race. I was very dedicated to the sport, running as much as 80 miles a week. (A corollary: If you’re going to do something, then do it and don’t half-ass it.) Much to the surprise and disappointment of some, I quit the team after my successful sophomore season in order to try out some other extra-curricular activities. I took some heat for this, but I’m still glad I did it. You need not do anything all four years. Mix it up and shake it up. But don’t ever quit mid-season. See your commitments through.

    6. High school is overrated, so try not to care too much.

    You’ll build friendships in high school, a few of which, if you’re lucky, will last a lifetime. That’s great. But when you get to college, your high school years will lose some of their luster. And when you graduate from college and get on with your career and family, college will also lose some of its shine. It’s a natural progression. What’s my point? High school is but a stepping-stone to other larger, more beautiful, and more rewarding stages of life. So when you find yourself really worked up or upset over something during high school, know that what may seem all-important in the moment probably won’t seem even mildly important later. I’m not suggesting that you don’t allow yourself to feel pain or frustration or heartache; just don’t let any of that overwhelm you. Greater joy and, yes, larger headaches await you down the road.

    7. Strengthen your upper body.

    If a teacher is looking for an answer and you know it, raise your hand regardless of whether or not anyone else has hers up. Also, raise your hand even if you aren’t 100 percent sure. There’s no shame in knowing something others don’t or in getting the answer wrong. In fact, a good deal of success in life is dependent on knowing what others don’t, as well as the willingness to take chances and to risk being wrong. More important, be just as quick to raise your hand when you need help understanding a point or working through an equation. Smart people ask for help while others wallow in ignorance, which only serves to make them—you guessed it—more ignorant. Not so smart, eh?

    8. Don’t pack your lunch.

    When I was in high school, the cafeteria food sucked. Even the fake hamburgers seemed to be made not from soybeans but from fake soybeans. I assume the cafeteria food tastes better today but is still generally lousy. That’s OK; eat it anyway. It won’t kill you. Let it be a reminder that you are among the world’s fortunate class, blessed with private school, a nice home, and three meals a day (even if one tastes like salted balsa wood). There are millions of kids around the world who can’t even imagine such good fortune. Remember: a grateful person is a happier one, and happier people are more fun to be around. Of course, more than thinking about the poor, do something for them. Join some clubs that serve the needy in our community. It would be sinful if you didn’t.

    9. Hug the dorks.

    Back in my day, membership in the chess club was synonymous with being a card-carrying dork. Maybe the computer programming club or the Wii bowling club has accepted that mantle. It doesn’t matter. Whatever it is: join it. While some in high school may try to avoid dorks like lepers, there’s no escaping them in life. Truth is, most will go on to big things, some even to great things. You may even work for one or marry one some day! Admire in the dorks (particularly if you are one, too) their willingness to be themselves as well as their ability to fix your computer. Befriend and defend these people. While you may not make them better people, they will you.

    10. Grade your teachers.

    Respect them and give them your full attention. But keep them on their toes, too. They have an obligation to you and your classmates to teach with enthusiasm, authority, and at least a modicum of creativity. Teaching is a tough job, tougher than any I have had or that you will likely have (unless, of course, you become a teacher yourself). But no one is forced to be an educator; therefore, the demands of the job are no excuse for a lazy, lackluster, and uninspiring performance. You need to hold your teachers accountable, and that includes outside the classroom.

    PART OF ME wishes I could shadow Maggie in high school, to protect and guide her. And maybe even slip her an answer or two in history or English class. (Sorry, but I would be of no help in math or science.) But I can’t do that, nor do I really want to. So I’ll drop her off at school in the morning and wave goodbye. All I ask is that she keep my advice in mind. And that she doesn’t fall for anyone claiming to have an elevator or swimming pool pass for sale. 

    Illustration by Kevin Miyazaki
    Originally published in the August 2009 issue.

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