I received an email from one of my good friends from high school this week – our beloved drama teacher is retiring and she wanted me to write a letter that would be presented to her on her final day.
I dutifully wrote it, and as I did, I was flooded with memories from those turbulent teenage years.
This woman’s no-nonsense, tough love approach and presence had a formative effect on my life. As I thought back to that era, I realized how much time we spent together – evenings and weekends rehearsing for productions, for assessments, for concerts. Having no children of her own, she dedicated much of her time and energy to us in all our emo, narcissistic, amateur glory.
It was because of her that I was able to have one of the most amazing experiences of my life – three weeks travelling and performing in the United States. This naïve, small town girl hopped on a plane for the first time and was transported literally to a new world. It was a transcendent experience – I devoured every ecstatic second of every teenage girls’ fantasy: giant shopping malls, Hawaiian beaches, Disneyland, and of course, performing a play about there being too many frogs and not enough princes for hundreds of Americans at a real American University. Hotels, international airports, palm trees, yellow cabs, buying blue jeans from The Gap – these experiences made me feel so grown up: invincible, as if the possibilities were endless. I was so lost in the moment that time ceased to exist. Everything was in technicolour and spaces seemed much larger, buildings much higher. It was as if each hour brought something better than the one that preceded it. I felt confident and beautiful and glowed like a candle on an altar.
That highlight aside, my teenage years were, like everyone else’s, awkward, and uncomfortable. I remembered my 17-year-old self. I am a little bit in awe of her. How did I manage to do well academically, keep up all those rehearsals, and work part-time at McDonald’s (usually the graveyard shift on Friday and Saturday nights cleaning up my peers’ vomit at 3am)? I have no idea where I got the energy or motivation. Just thinking about that kind of schedule makes me feel bone-chillingly exhausted. Add to that an unstable family life, teenage heart-break, a mysterious ailment, and an insalubrious social life that revolved around alcohol, drugs and mourning Kurt Cobain. It’s a wonder I didn’t curl up and hide under a rock in my ripped Gap jeans.
I was such a diligent little soldier, ambitious and determined. I suppose I was driven to make something of myself, to be the first person in my family to go to university, to experience the world that featured in all those books I read when I was trying to escape from my painful reality. I can be grateful that I was pretty independent and self-sufficient from a young age.
Inevitably though, we get knocked down by life, and we learn to get up. Things wash over us easily when we’re young, but I feel now, although I have a stronger backbone, there are definitely chips in my armor. My confidence and resilience have been tested, and sometimes eroded. That is inevitable. The trick, I think, is to recall the strengths of that younger self and remind myself that I have got through crazy hard times before, that there is a well of inner strength there to be drawn from.
Also, now I have the gift of perspective and experience. I am older, wiser, more mature, less naive, definitely less innocent, maybe more cynical. Definitely more self-aware.
During those formative years, we need such mentors in our lives to provide some calm amongst the storm, a respite from the crashing waves of hormones and peer pressure. I was lucky to have had such a nurturing, if eccentric, role model.