I’ve been going through some old photos and organizing them in scrapbooks for my son recently. These pictures range from me as a baby through my time living in South Korea. There is one photo that stands out to me overall. It’s an old yearbook photo of me when I was 15 years old. As the dawn of my third decade is fast approaching, I think back and reminisce about what happened in that fateful year. For one thing, it was a year of firsts- first boyfriend, first time traveling abroad, and the first time that I knew that I wanted to become a teacher. Of course, there were other firsts, though they are not nearly as notable, newsworthy, or noble for that matter.
My first (and last) cigarette was at the age of 15. I look back at that one and really have to laugh in an awkward, cringe-worthy way at what a total jackass I made of myself in front of the “cool kids.” As we were sitting around in a circle, I was passed a cigarette and a lighter, and tried to nonchalantly light up like a pro. Stupid, stupid me- After all those movies and TV shows that I must have seen with people smoking, it totally evaded my logic that you cannot light a cigarette like you light a stick of incense or a candle (which is exactly what I was trying to do until someone finally stepped in to correct me). Out of shame and attempting to redeem myself, I accepted the cigarette back and inhaled as sharply and deeply as I could (telltale indication number two that perhaps I wasn’t really the chain smoker that I had initially made myself out to be). I immediately violently gagged, choked, and slithered away in a mortifying coughing fit. I had indeed learned some valuable lessons:
- Smoking is repulsive and has physical consequences.
- Don’t pretend to be someone/something that you are not. By the time you are in the 10th grade, with the Big Kids, this is referred to as being a “poser.” Nobody in high school likes a poser.
- Don’t lie. For an infinite number of reasons, don’t lie. Sooner or later, you’re inevitably outed as the fraud you are. No matter the motivation, even if it’s not a public tar-and-feathering, in a very significant way, you lose your worth as a respectable human being in the eyes of the world. Never, ever worth it.
It didn’t take too much time or deep reflection to realize that my self-inflicted and karmic humiliation was absolutely for the best. In any case, it was a lesson of extreme value. But all lessons of extreme value sometimes need to be refreshed and reinforced, until it is like an involuntary reflex (ex: Don’t lie, remember the Golden Rule, and say “please” and “thank you” whenever possible).
And other lessons are simply hard won, and there are also times when you are doomed to learn something the hard way, after committing the same error again. And again. And again.
When I think about some of the other lessons that I’ve learned between now and 15, some that took me far too long to comprehend – about drawing the line and standing up for myself, about not wasting valuable energy and time making myself sick in fear over others who didn’t matter, about when a relationship is one sided, toxic, and/or abusive, about when to call it quits versus when to stick something out (and how to distinguish between the two), and about knowing when you have to ask for help before you are in over your head – it honestly makes me feel a bit sad, a bit nostalgic, and kind of exhausted
I look at that yearbook photo from 15 years ago, and I scarcely recognize myself. If someone had given me a crystal ball at that moment in 1998, I doubt I’d recognize myself now, either. But if anything, this particular lesson helps me to realize that even if I live to be 100 years old, life is still short and too valuable to just consider yourself a finished product. Regardless of your age, you never want to stop moving forward and progressing; you never, ever want to stop learning. As long as you learn, you still to have something to look forward to and you still have hope.