Dear Alma Mater,
High school wasn't my favorite time or place.
I felt the force of a creative, funny, confident girl somewhere in the tissue of my body, but in the halls you walk today the true version of me made only a rare appearance. Mostly she felt somehow invisible and glaringly out of place, all at once. So she tried to lay low, hoping that someone would notice the best parts of her and respond to them.
I called my mom this weekend, and after I finished bragging about my 85 degree weather out here in California, she told me about you guys.
Needless to say, the conversation dimmed in tone, as we sunk into the quiet of tragic truths.
Let me say first, to the parents, siblings, and friends of those who were recently lost, you have my love, my prayers, and my firm belief that every future holds hope.
To the teachers who take their tireless stance in front of dry erase boards each morning: you will always be among my favorite group of people in the world, and your investment in me has enhanced my life in ways that will hold me forever grateful. You are invaluable light.
But this letter is mostly to you, the students of my high school, present and future.
When I attended your/our school, the Twin Towers came down. We were reading "In Cold Blood" at the time for English class, and this piece of literature didn't exactly restore my faith in humanity. FYI: there are a lot of gruesome books out there, but I promise there are about a billion others that will put a smile on your face. I know this because I spent a lot of my time in high school visiting the library. My social calendar was pretty sparse, so I often turned to words for warmth.
I vividly remember turning the pages of a novel after school during my senior year, ultimately needing to set it down because my tears were blurring the paragraphs before me. The book was happy, but I was not.
I didn't recognize depression by its name, this being our first encounter, but I certainly felt her unforgiving grip.
Later that semester I became extremely ill, and I am convinced to this day it was my emotions' way of saying, "Something's gotta give."
I was out of school for a week, and I watched my mom cry in response to a very frightening (mis)diagnosis from the doctor. Each hour as I slept a palm would pause on my forehead, checking for fever.
When I returned to classes, my self-conscious figure sidled into calculus, where something happened that I never saw coming. Fifteen years later, my memory has yet to scrap it.
Morgan, a very well-liked girl with friends to spare, shouted, "Bailey!" and slid out of her desk to stand up and wrap me in a real, unrushed hug.
It was in that moment I realized I had been present during my absence. In a time in my life when I thought none of my peers noticed me, I was proven wrong.
And oh how beautiful it can be to be wrong.
When I was released from Morgan's hug, I was held in a new attitude. I thought to myself, "College will be here in nine months, so let's try and make the best of this opening act."
And suddenly I could see.
I could see Nate, sneaking ice cream into English class, bribing our teacher out of a tardy slip.
I could see Corie, who looked out for me and could quote "Friends" as readily as I.
I could see Katie, giggling on her living room floor as we gobbled trail mix and our pencils scratched out derivatives and limitations.
I could see that one teacher (maybe he's still there) who would yell, with empty hands, "Hot coffee!" and clear himself a path through a gaggle of teens.
I could see all the people who were doing their best. I could see that I wasn't necessarily being ignored by my classmates, but perhaps I was too timid to raise my gaze and meet their eyes.
I know how busy you all are, and right now your daily agenda probably holds to-dos such as "Grieve," "Wonder why this happened," and "Just move forward."
I certainly don't want to add to your plate, but I do have one tiny assignment for you, and I give it to you because I care about you, though we may never meet.
So here it is, are you ready?
Find your Jell-O.
I know, I know. You were hoping I was going to say "Let loose and take a break." Well in a way I am saying that.
When I was in your shoes, in your locker room, in your stairwells, thumbing your textbooks and numbing my bum on those ice-cold football bleachers, there was one thing that was constant in my Monday to Friday.
No matter what the menu in the cafeteria, I always ordered a side of Jell-O. Red when I was interested in flavor, green when I was chasing after levity.
The Jell-O was cut into cubes, piled in sticky stacks in plastic bowls, and (now this is very important, so pay attention:) topped with a little flower of whipped cream.
Ever interested in fairness, I divvied up that floret with the tip of my spoon and made sure each cube received a smear of dairy before popping each block into my mouth.
High school wasn't all bad, of course. I laughed at teachers' antics and read some great books and enjoyed the occasional day off thanks to a Kansas ice storm. And of course there was Jell-O. I could count on that gelatin at every lunch hour, often saved it for last. Because it was something to savor.
There are plenty of things to savor during this time in your life, sometimes you just have to search for them.
You, my friends, are the Cougars. By nature you are solitary creatures. But please don't let isolation be your way.
There are so many of you and you're each so. incredibly. special. So get to know each other while you can; don't wait 'til graduation. Talk to each other.
If you're hurting, tell someone, anyone.
If you're feeling fine, reach out to just one person who maybe seems too afraid to speak first.
And ALL Y'ALL:
Find your Jell-O!
Join the choir. Volunteer. Help build a set for the play. Or spend Saturday night working on extra credit, if that's your jam. I highly recommend Mrs. Koenigsdorf's creative writing class -- what a great space to find your voice.
High school will not be forever. Nothing will, including how you're feeling right this moment. These four years don't have to be your celebrity season in the sun, but you deserve a ray of joy regardless.
So find something that makes you happy, revel in it, and revel again. Try your absolute hardest to forget about what others think of your preferred hobby and instead just get into that mode where you can't see or hear or feel anyone else's judgment because you're too lost in what makes you tick. (But look up every now and then; there may be a new friend nearby).
I know firsthand how scary it can be to be yourself. But take it from someone who tried navigating life without herself -- advertising the truth is a lot less work and the only way that flirts with freedom.
Raise those banners to the fore. I can't wait to see how you're going to better this world.
All my love,