Dear Westbrook High School,
Hi, remember me? Probably not. I graduated way back in 2001, and in those days then my name was Emily Morse. (Technically, it still is. We can talk about pen names another time.) Anyway, I wasn’t very legendary. I had a few awards from being on the track team, and occasionally I’d get some sort of acknowledgement from an English teacher. I think I got a medal for women’s citizenship at graduation, but I’m sad to say I can’t remember. Recently, my mom found my National Honor Society pin, which I’m amazed that I even had, considering what a shit show senior year was for me. That pin now sits on my dresser between my basket of clean socks and my 13″ TV with a built-in VCR. I guess you could say I like to hold on to things.
Anyway, the new school year is starting. As I write this, I’m at a coffee shop in Austin, Texas that’s about spitting distance from the neighborhood middle school. They’ve already started classes here in AISD, and at about 3pm, my beloved (air-conditioned) sanctuary will be invaded by middle school students. It’s cool. Teens are my peeps. But it makes me think of you guys.
According to my dad, school is starting for y’all next week. And I thought I’d write you a note with a little bit of insight. Because, goddamn, high school feels so huge, doesn’t it? Not, like, in an OMG I’M IN HIGH SCHOOL WOW sort of way. (But, yeah, for freshmen, that can totally be the case. I felt that way.) But in a THIS IS MY ENTIRE WORLD sort of way. And that’s pretty overwhelming, isn’t it? Teachers and administrators have probably said the phrase “permanent record” in your presence at some point in the last few years. Or they’ve been talking about “if you want to get into college…” and all that stuff. Plus, you’re finding yourself navigating cliques, which I know for a FACT are super weird and tough in a small town. (BTW, if you didn’t know it, Westbrook is a small town. 16,000 people? Yeah, small. I know it’s not, like, you know, Aroostook County. But it’s small. Trust me. I didn’t figure this out until I was like 26, but it’s true.) So while you’re stressing about where to sit in the cafeteria or whether you’ll make new friends this year or if your friends will make fun of you for joining the math team or going out for track or if you even have a chance at making the football team (has the football team won a game recently? They SUCKED when I was at WHS) — well, I thought maybe you could use a few pointers.
WAIT. Don’t click away. They’re not those kind of pointers.
Actually, I only have one pointer.
STOP IT. Stop rolling your eyes. I’m serious. I may not have learned a lot at Westbrook High, before I escaped to college and eventually to New York and later Texas (damn, it’s hot here! I miss real autumn!) — but I did learn the value of being nice. The hard way. I was the kid that got picked on in middle school. And I later became kind of hardened. I didn’t trust anyone. I was jealous. I was angry. I was pretty sure that the kids at my lunch table didn’t like me that much. And, you know what? Some of them didn’t.
I did track almost every season that I was at WHS. I was even good at my event (racewalk) in the spring. Like, really good. But I wasn’t a jock. Sometimes the Most Popular Girl In School would give me a ride home. We had a lot of classes together. I’d known her since I was like six (small town, y’all…you know how that goes). She’d been mean to me in middle school, but that was in the past, right? Not for me. I didn’t trust her. I felt good when we would talk about music (The Cranberries, Foo Fighters), but never opened up. I found out in high school that I was struggling with mental illness. I found out in college that Popular Girl also did. Can you imagine what might have happened if either of us had been NICER to each other?
So when I say BE NICE, I’m not just talking to bullies. And I know you all have heard how bullies are bullies because they’re insecure. And I know that you don’t care about this when you’re being bullied because it HURTS. And, yeah, bullies? Be nice. Duh. And not-bullies? This all applies to you, too. It applies to everyone! Anyway, I thought it might be valuable for you to know a few things, from someone who has walked those same hallowed halls:
1. The kid who made my life miserable in 6th grade looked me up on Facebook when we were 27 and APOLOGIZED to me. At length. He was embarrassed and ashamed. We’re FB friends now. If I ran into him while I was visiting Westbrook, I’d hug him.
2. The only people I’m still actually for realsies in touch with now from Westbrook are either related to me or people who I’ve reconnected with on Facebook post-college. (Given, we didn’t have FB when I was in college. I’m just saying, if you don’t want to stay in touch with people, you don’t have to. And if you want to re-connect later, you can!)
3. I can think of at least five people who were mean to me who have since come out as being gay, or having serious struggles with an eating disorder, or having seriously effed up family situations at home. Which means this: You don’t know what other people are dealing with. And while I FIRMLY believe that having a tough life doesn’t give you carte blanche to be an asshole, sometimes assholes need a bit of grace in order to be, uh, less of an asshole.
4. It’s okay if you fail trigonometry. I did. I’m doing okay for myself. But you should probably still be nice to your math teacher. (I used to draw pictures of angry people trash-talking trig as answers on my math tests. To be fair, I was kind of losing my mind at the time and my math teacher was kind of a jerk, but, you know…maybe not the best tactic.)
5. Only like six people went to my ten-year high school reunion. I was not one of them because it’s expensive as hell to fly from Texas to Maine in August.
6. The teacher who was a total jerk to me (and taught MOBY DICK, which I HATED with a fiery passion…which may or may not be his fault) was eventually fired in some sort of scandal involving weed and an affair with a student. According to rumor. So much schadenfreude, since he went easier on athletes on the team(s) he coached. All students should be treated equally, am I right?
7. I did go back to Westbrook High School in 2012 to bring y’all a copy of my first book, DEAR TEEN ME. The head librarian did not remember me, but remembered my brother and my dad. (My dad used to coach the hockey team.) One of the volunteers at the circulation desk was shocked to find out that someone from WHS had published a book. Guess what? There is nothing about WHS that limits you. NOTHING. Which brings me back to:
I swear to you. Being a good person, a nice person, will open more doors for you than being captain of the (anything) team, or having perfect grades, or being popular or being a nerd. (Because, let’s face it, nerd is the new cool.) Being nice doesn’t mean being a doormat, of course. And it doesn’t mean you won’t have to be assertive, or ask for what you want, or reach hard and long for goals. But being nice is way more important than calculus or English or soccer or cliques or small towns or big cities.
So, Westbrook High School, I wish you all the best for your new school year. Make new friends. Take risks. Sit with people you haven’t ever sat with before. Take a class that scares you. Try out for a team you’re completely unqualified for. Go see a new band. Join a band. Write poems, write novels, write epics. Try not to be scared of math. (Make friends with someone good at math who can help you not be scared of math.) Go to homecoming stag. Ask your crush to homecoming. Ask for help when you need it, whether it’s for school, for relationships, or your health. And, above all, be nice. I’ll be thinking of you and wishing you well, from sunny Texas.
Especially when you’re shoveling your parents’ driveways this winter. Good effing luck with that.
WHS Class of 2001.