Friday, May 29, 2015

Give Yourself Something For a Change

     I've written before about a gift that only you can give, but recent events have caused me to reflect on a different sort of gift.  One that only you can give, but this time, the recipient is yourself.  Last night my wife and I sent our contrition to our nephew's time capsule, which his fifth grade teacher is making for each student, to be opened in seven years upon the student's graduation from high school. While the letters he reads on that day from us, his siblings, and his mom and dad will no doubt be very intriguing, the letter he is writing and putting in there himself may be the most revealing and re-read letter of the bunch-- because there is no price that can be put on having a clear window into who we once were and how we viewed our life and the world in our past.

     My personal experience with this came three years ago this month, when I found a floppy disk (remember those?) on which I had kept a journal during my senior year of high school in 1999 / 2000.  I titled it "The Good Life" and it clocks in at just under 100 pages.  I read an entry each night, if only to stretch out the experience and savor this peek into the thoughts and feelings of my teenage self.  Some of the things I remembered very clearly, while others I recalled incorrectly or not at all.  I was floored at the things High School Evin didn't understand about life.  Especially girls.  l documented my entire relationship and break up with my first actual girlfriend (I think everything that a person does in middle school or thinks is important during that time should be expunged from existence.)  And I captured the early days of my friendship with Kayla, who helped me overcome getting dumped (by her best friend) and then became my closest confidant as high school concluded.  The flow of entries becomes a trickle beyond that, but I still wrote a few times after graduation, right up through our long distance relationship when she went to Michigan State and I went to Eastern.  What I am struck by is how fortunate I am that the words "lungs," and "cystic fibrosis" never appear in the journal, the word "cough" is in there once, and the only time I use "sick" is in reference to other people.  I had no idea how lucky I was then to be a person with CF keeping a high school journal that never once mentioned medicine or hospitals.

     In addition to counting my blessings, this journal prompted me to do two things.  I began keeping a journal again, although with the school year ending, my entries were not as frequent as they could have been.  I was much worse at making consistent entries than I had been as a 17 year old, and I partly blame Facebook, which takes the form of a visual and verbal journal, albeit a public one.  This was especially true after my transplant, when my writing about how I was doing physically and emotionally was almost exclusive done via social media.

     The second thing was that I immediately told all of my students, especially those who were seniors, was that they should create a journal of their experiences in high school.  I implored them to write down the days events, even just for two weeks, because they would never regret having such a glimpse into their past.  Realizing that I could not mandate students to keep a personal journal, and recognizing that a letter to one's future self might be even more eye opening to them than a simple record of thoughts and feelings, I required my AP English students to write letters to themselves to be opened at a date of their choosing.  I told them that no matter how many years out the send date was, I would make it happen.  Only five of the 25 plus had dates that were more than two years away.  One of them is going to remain in my possession until 2022.  I look forward to my self-driving car taking me to the post office on January 2nd of that year so that I can fulfill my obligation.

     The idea of a letter to your future self inherently contains a potential for disappointment.  Is the student who wanted her letter sent four years from graduation going to be upset if she isn't as close to her college degree as she's hoped to be?  Perhaps.  Will there be kids who wish they had demanded more of themselves in their younger years?  Almost certainly.  But what a letter or a journal holds is a sacred shadow of who we were on that day, one which was cast so briefly that, without the written record, we might not remember it at all.  And though such a document will likely contain things we wish we didn't remember, it is these disappointments, heartbreaks, and "why me's" that jostled us along to become the person we are on the day we re-read these since forgotten words.  If there's one thing my recent experiences have made clear, it's that the struggles in the valley are vital to being able to appreciate the view from the mountaintop.

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