You are 16. A high school junior. In fact, you have just started the second semester of your junior year. We were warned that junior year would be brutal, and that right about now you would be ready to throw in the towel. You are no doubt just as sleep deprived, over committed, under nourished and overwhelmed as all of your other high school junior friends. A typical day for you begins at 6:00 AM when you rush off to Chi-Fil-A for an early morning study session before the first bell even rings. Between classes you continue cramming for an upcoming quiz, or you are busy responding to the never ending stream of texts, emails and social media messages from family, friends and teachers alike. During lunch you head to the school theater where you either have student directing responsibilities or you are busy rehearsing for an upcoming performance. I hope that you usually find time to swallow a few bites of the lunch I pack for you. For years I made you pack your own lunch or you’d have to eat from the school cafeteria, but that was before the demands of high school consumed your every waking hour. Nowadays I have no concerns about you not having enough responsibilities, and instead I now worry that you have too many. I also worry that you are not eating or sleeping enough, nor are you able to really take enough time to think about who you are or what life is all about. The least I can do is throw some food in a bag in hopes that you get enough calories to make it through another day. After school you almost always have additional school commitments- making up a test, a club meeting or most often another theatre commitment. Once you finally get home you will only take a break from homework long enough to join your family for dinner, however the days of you leading our dinner games or our long heated dinner debates have been replaced by your desperate pleas to be excused within minutes of taking your first bite. While I’ve no doubt that you love your family dearly, you simply have little time to invest in meaningful relationships just as there is just no time for you to invest in your favorite interests and hobbies- no more craft projects for me to clean up, no jewelry making, poetry or short story writing,no reading for pleasure, no more political and ethical debates or family game nights, and no more kitchens covered in flour and eggs from Kori’s gourmet cooking and baking night after night. And the only singing I regularly hear coming from your room is your stressed out attempts to hit the notes that might guarantee you a role in the next school musical. Afterall, everything depends on being cast and the competition is brutal. I’m not sure when high school extra curricular activities became more intense than most full time adult careers, but here we are. Sometimes I wonder if I am seeing your lifelong theatre passion dissolve into nothing more than overwhelming theatre pressure. Most of your theatre friends have been in private voice lessons, dance classes and have acting coaches on top of their daily tutoring, sessions with their college consultants, and test prep classes. I wonder how other families manage the price tags and time commitments involved, but perhaps the outside help they receive somehow lessens the stress and pressure they are under. Being that I was a first generation college graduate that started at the local community college, I still struggle to understand everything that goes into college planning and admissions. We’ve dabbled some in SAT Prep and voice lessons for you this year, but I have yet to understand the value they have added to your already stressed out schedule.
On a good night you will hand me your phone by 11:00, and turn out lights within the hour. I know you hate turning in your phone each night, but I am so thankful that you are forced to disconnect- even if only for 6 or 7 hours while you attempt to get some good sleep. Sometimes I wish someone would make me turn in my phone at the end of the day so that I too would disconnect from the onslaught of social media posts displaying your friend’s college visits or college acceptances, the school district texts and emails about the endless upcoming events and reminders, the news stories and blogs that tell me stress and busyness is the key to success, and the online shopping and brainless entertainment that allows my mind to disengage from the stress and pressure of the day.
Of course while just laying there in your bed trying to doze off you are likely worrying about GPAs, SAT scores, what to wear to an audition or school dance, college applications, future careers and of course cast lists. A day in the life of a high school junior in 2020 is NUTS!
I realize that I am painting a rather depressing picture of your life, when in reality you are anything but depressed. You are truly thankful for your quirky family and your large but close knit group of friends. You recognize and regularly express gratitude for the abundant comforts and opportunities you have been given both in and out of school, and you find a deep abiding joy in your faith- even in the day to day chaos.
But today, in the midst of the chaos I noticed something (or someone rather) that woke me from this junior year trance that we are stuck in. I saw something that took me back to memories of my own high school worries and chaos. Worries about getting a job at 16 to help my parents pay the mortgage, and worries about whether or not Dad would show up sober while often hoping he would not show up at all. Today I was also flooded with memories of the stories my own mother told me about the worries and chaos of her high school years. Worries not about what she would eat, but rather if she would eat. Worries about whether her family would be relocating forcing her to be the new kid once again, and worries about how she could avoid any one noticing that she was wearing the same outfit for the third time that week. Then I remembered her brutal junior year when she found herself pregnant and forced to actually throw in the towel, no matter how much she longed for a brighter future.
Kori, this morning we slept through our alarms, or perhaps in the rush of getting to bed the alarm was never set. Either way, we woke you up with only minutes to spare, so instead of packing your lunches I rushed around helping to get you and your brother out the door. As you ran to the car with me chasing after with water bottles, I promised to bring you both lunches to school later in the day.
In an attempt to supplement the fast food in your diet, I boiled some eggs, sliced a perfectly ripe avocado and a juicy green pear, and toasted a grilled cheese. Avocado still green and sandwich still warm, I walked into your high school expecting you to be waiting at the table just next to the front doors like you often are on the days I deliver lunch. But it was not you sitting at that table. Instead it was a timid (dare I say petrified) looking girl sitting alone picking at her school lunch tray. Due to overcrowding in the cafeteria, students often seek refuge in other corners of the school including the front lobby. In fact on this muggy January Houston day, the other tables and benches in the lobby were overflowing with groups of students laughing, talking and eating together. I could not help but notice her, and wonder why she was alone and what her story was. As I waited for you, I tried to catch her eyes so I could smile or even say hello but she was determined not to draw any attention in her direction. There was something tragic about the look in her eyes as she stared at the half eaten chili dog and orange slices on her white styrofoam tray. Something about that look in her eyes caused me pain and made me wonder what her story was. Was it much like my story? Or maybe it was like my mom’s story? Was she new to the school, or had she just not found a place to belong? Would this be her only meal today? Was she scared to go home or maybe was without a way to get home or even without a home to go to? I tend to think that she was not worried about cast lists or test scores. I wanted to ask her, to tell her that life would not always be the way it is today. I wanted to tell her that junior year will eventually end- that high school is really not the end of our story- that in fact it is barely the beginning.
And when you had still not shown up to collect your lunch after several minutes, I decided to move a little closer to her table in hopes that our eyes just might meet. I realized that some old lady’s attempt to cheer her up might be even more humiliating than allowing her to sit alone in silence trying to be invisible. So then I just started hoping that you might notice her when you finally showed up to gather your lunch. I hoped you might notice her and share a smile or even a brief conversation.
But alas you rushed into the lobby, out of breath from running all the way from the theatre. You smiled at me with your genuine grateful smile, and profusely thanked me for bringing you lunch. You were there just long enough to inform me that you were in between practicing scenes and needed to get back to work, but not without first telling me that you loved me. I love you too Kori- more than you will ever be able to comprehend.
I hope someone loves that girl the way I love you. I hope that she finds a place to belong. I hope that she will look up from her tray long enough to notice that there is more to life than whatever she is walking through right now. This is still only the beginning of her story.
And I hope you know how much I love you. I hope that you will forever remain thankful for the comforts and opportunities you have that are not common to all of us. I hope that you will be the one to help others find their place of belonging. And I hope you will look up from your busyness once in a while and notice that there is so much more to life than whatever you are walking through right now.
It is tempting to believe that life begins and ends in high school- that cast lists and score reports, college acceptances and event invitations determine not only our happiness today but our future success. Rest assured that junior year will end. Life will not always be the way it is today. High school is not the end of your story, nor does it really determine what tomorrow holds. And as CS Lewis once said “there are far far greater things ahead than any we leave behind.” Believe that, live it and share it with the stressed, the hopeless, the hurting, the broken and the lonely all around you. Lord knows that I am forever changed because someone looked up long enough to notice a floundering, lost high school girl, and because of that I found hope and a place to belong for all of eternity.