This week I thought I’d take a break from the usual politics and policy and get a little sentimental. We are a couple of weeks away from the end of the school year, which means graduation day is approaching for students across the state. My son is graduating from middle school, which is kind of a second-tier graduation next to high school or college, but when I think about all of the seismic shifts that happen in the teen years, 8th grade graduation seems like a crucial time for good advice.
So, while he hasn’t asked for my advice, I offer my son and his classmates some words of wisdom about the next four years of their lives, and I’ll title it, “If You Mess Around For the Next Four Years You’ll Ruin Your Life.”
Ok, not really. What I really want you 13- and 14-year-olds to know is that while you’ll frequently hear the phrase “Life’s Too Short,” if you’re always living in the moment you won’t have the life you really want. You need to prepare as though your life will be long, because hopefully all of you are embarking on long, fruitful lives, and, as Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” The flip side is that if you learn good habits and healthy patterns now, it will put you years ahead of everyone else.
You might find this especially difficult, given the culture that surrounds you, which celebrates lives that are high-speed and low-effort, and emphasizes things that provide immediate gratification and are easily disposable. There is always something new, better, faster, sleeker.
But you also live in an age in which our knowledge and understanding is expanding exponentially, society is more open and accepting than at any time in our recent history, and there is still a great deal of opportunity if one is willing to seek it out and work hard for it.
High school is a time for you to figure out what you love, and what you’re good at. Those aren’t always the same things, but hopefully they’ll overlap somewhere. Because really, we tend to fall in love the most with the things we do best. Learn to harness those talents in ways that will help you — to put it bluntly — make money. While money is not the most important thing in life, it sure makes life a lot easier if you don’t have to worry about where your next paycheck is coming from.
You’ve been told to follow your dreams. That’s great. Dreams are good. But so is a roof over your head and food on your table. Sometimes you have to live out your dreams after working hours unless you figure out how to incorporate them into your central career.
Then again, if you are willing to live a life of dignified poverty in order to play the classical guitar professionally, have at it.
Either way, be prepared to work hard. I taught a college writing class and many of my students hated writing. They complained that it was hard for them. Of course it is! It’s hard for me. Work isn’t supposed to be easy, whether it’s writing a paper or memorizing history. But you get the hang of it the more you try.
Attending school regularly is a big part of achieving success. It sounds simple, but just the act of going to school (almost) every day makes a teen much more likely to graduate and more likely to be academically successful. But not all high schoolers attend regularly — for example, almost half of all high school students in Bridgeport are chronically absent, which means they miss 10 percent or more of the school year.
Maybe that number surprises you right now, but the varied and enticing distractions of the teen years will sneak up on you, and you’ll know soon enough it’s all too easy to do something else besides go to school. Your girlfriend or boyfriend, video games or social media, hanging out in your friend’s basement and smoking a joint — all of these things can and will keep you away if you let them. So choose now not to let that happen.
Parents don’t always know when to force their kids to do things, and when to let them learn from their mistakes. You’ll find that if you learn to independently make smart choices, your parents will trust you more and life will be much easier for you and for them.
Learn to look outside of just your peer group for help and support. Look to family, friends, neighbors, clergy, teachers, administrators, coaches — there are so many people who are willing to help you if you ask.
Also, look for opportunities to serve and lift others. Learn that giving involves much more than “liking” your favorite cause on Facebook or retweeting a celebrity’s well-meaning hashtag.
The teenage years are also the time you should learn the importance of being civically engaged. You are blessed to live in a republic based on democratic principles. But if you and the kids who come after you don’t get involved and stay informed about issues of politics and public policy, you will not long enjoy the same rights and freedoms you enjoy today. If your parents are cynical, help them see there are still a lot of good people left who hold public office.
The teen years are full of scary things, especially scary for your parents. If you haven’t already been introduced to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, porn, violence, and many other temptations, you will be in the next few years. Stay away from these things, but if you don’t, just be careful. Never get in a car with a drunk friend. Better yet, if you see a drunk friend get behind the wheel of a car, drag them out and take their keys. We lose way too many beautiful young lives this way.
Life is too short to waste it in front of mindless entertainment. There is a place for television and movies — even video games, although I think that place is very small; tiny even — but don’t spend your life watching the world through a screen. Get out there and look at it in wonder like the poets and travelers of years past. You will miss it if you sit in front of a screen, or hold an even tinier screen in front of your face for hours on end.
Love learning. Be curious. See the good in other people. Have fun — but hopefully you’ll learn that when you’re in the busy pursuit of something really worthwhile, fun comes naturally.
Happy graduation day.
Suzanne Bates is a writer living in South Windsor with her family. While traveling across the country as an Air Force spouse, she worked for news organizations including the Associated Press, the New Hampshire Union Leader, and Good Morning America Weekend. She recently completed a research fellowship at the Yankee Institute. Follow her on Twitter @suzebates.