A student showed up at my classroom door just last week looking for help with a college essay. And in case your reaction to this news is some version of “Isn’t the middle of June a ridiculous time to begin working on an admissions essay?” please rest assured that your response is entirely appropriate and the only degree this particular kid will probably end up earning will be a Bachelor’s in Procrastination – and it will likely take him six years to complete. I had two options. I could remind him that I’d offered to help him write this very essay way back in October and now, in June, my mind has shut down along with my compassion or I could just go ahead and help. As I don’t really want to take any chances that this guy will still be wandering the hallways of my school next year, I sat him down and inquired about the prompt to which the university had asked him to respond. It was fairly straightforward:
What advice would you give your younger self?
This question is probably designed to accomplish two important things:
1. Encourage prospective students to engage in a bit of self-reflection as one stage of life nears completion.
2. Effectively weed out the idiots who respond that they’d tell their younger selves to do whatever it takes to one day make it to Coachella, where they will arrive carting their bullshit collection of flower headbands and then post every single second of their time there since actually living in the moment is not nearly as important as making sure everyone knows you’re having the moment in the first place.
I did what I could to motivate a thoughtful response, but there was kind of a block there. Reflection did not interest him, not at a time defined by the future. I pressed him to think, to remember, but the only thing he could articulate was that he would have told his fourteen-year-old self to work harder as a freshman. What were you doing instead of working back then? I asked. What specific advice could you offer the Muppet Baby version of yourself in hindsight? To those questions he just shrugged. I eventually helped him craft an outline so at least the structure of the essay will illustrate a mechanical competence and I very much look forward to the day in the near future when he asks me if I’d like my fries supersized.
In the shower later that night, the question from that university kept coming back to me. What would I tell the younger me? First I’d tell her to get comfortable because, holy shit, there are so many things she should know. I’d tell her, for example, to learn how to organize a closet well before the age of twenty-five. I would caution her not to rush through moments of life and instead realize that years pass way more quickly than sometimes feels comfortable. I’d buy her a flatiron and some Bumble & Bumble serum and I’d recommend she take better care of the grey Stussy sweatshirt given to her by her first boyfriend because she’d still sleep in it now if she had it. But mostly I would implore her not be afraid – of learning lessons, of starting over, of the inevitability of change.
Change. It’s inevitable and sometimes it’s really fucking surprising. Take, for example, a recent change I’ve borne witness to involving my sweet mother who has grown way more religious over the passage of time. A woman who never sent me to Hebrew School and exhibited zero external trauma over her decision not to Bat Mitzvah me now begins sentences with, “The other night when I was at the Rabbi’s house for dinner…” and I listen while attempting to rearrange my facial features into an expression that doesn’t communicate total confusion.
I am rarely successful in such an endeavor.
I suppose my judgment – which I’m not all that proud of since “judgmental” is not exactly a stellar personal quality – stems from the way she speaks now, as if she’s always been this way instead of acknowledging that it was fairly recently that she morphed into Super Jew, a caped crusader my sister and I believe probably gains strength by an exposure to whole wheat matzo. Sure, her parents were religious and every once in a while during my childhood years she would bust out a Yiddish expression. Some of that old school vernacular slid straight into my own cavalry of expression, resulting in me calling certain guys shmucks instead of douchebags. Our family celebrates all the holidays and I participate in Seders and it has become something of an annual tradition for me to piss off just about everyone when I suggest that maybe we don’t have to read the entire story of Passover before dinner and instead discuss the history of the Israelites over soup. I can no longer help that I lack a strong connection to my religion. I guess when something is not planted deep within you early on, sometimes it will not resonate later. I guess telling a Jewish kid to go to sleep or Santa won’t show up has consequences that eventually come out in the form of a blank stare when dinner at the Rabbi’s house is mentioned.
A part of me thinks it’s lovely my mother has found something that brings her comfort and meaning, and I understand enough about who she is to know why she needs to feel a connection right now to her past. And it’s examples like this one – like a parent rediscovering a seemingly once-dormant faith – that illustrate how change is possible, though I guess I just think part of the changing process should be acknowledging the process itself.
It’s exposure that facilitates change – to new belief systems, to the crashing of values, to losses and to acquisitions. If you’re open and you let people get close, sometimes an internal restructuring occurs that leads to a benefit, an emotional surplus if you will. But on mornings when rain is spitting from the sky and the horizon looks like it’s been half-erased and the same song is playing on the radio that played yesterday, you sometimes find yourself reflecting about who you once were and the sticky mess of people and incidents and (fuck) your own damn choices that caused you to shift into another version of yourself. And I think if you really want to figure out who you are now, you have to go all the way back and figure out who you once were.
It’s my father’s image that pops into my mind the second I think of my earliest days of childhood. You’d think it would be my mother, especially since I’m pretty sure she was the more selfless one during my toddler years. Here’s an example: I used to wake up at six in the morning and bang my fist against the wall that separated my bedroom from that of my parents. Ma! I’d scream. Hungers! And then she would appear in my doorway and I would immediately put my finger to my lips and say, Shhhh. Dada sleeping. She’d look through my windows at the moon still blazing in the sky and then her gaze would calmly shift back to me and she would inform me in dulcet tones that we don’t wake up so early in this house – or bang on walls – but I think the real moral of this story here is that, through it all, my father was allowed to sleep soundly. But in his hours of consciousness, he taught me important lessons like how to laugh at myself. He taught me humor is a way to cope, that being funny is often a way in. He made me realize there’s nothing I value more in someone else than the ability to elicit laughter in me that sometimes feels like a dagger. I like the way that dagger feels when it twists. That part of me will never change.
But from my father I also learned that good people sometimes have a dark side and resentment can build if stubbornness acts as your personal guide. By seeing the fleeting looks of hurt or shock flit across the faces of a few of his targets, I learned that not everyone knows how to laugh at themselves and it is your responsibility to stop from putting them into such positions. He taught me that certain insults bite like fangs, and not in a bullshit Twilight sort of way.
My father died before he ever got to teach me real lessons about men, but I think I became drawn to certain guys when I’d see flashes of his qualities emanating from them. I think now that those recognitions were probably more profound than I initially realized. Certain men would get my head to spin. I’d recognize a sparkle of confidence – maybe even a light arrogance – in a gait as a man and I would walk into a hockey arena. I liked how he would tightly hold my hand and guide me, the two of us weaving easily through the crowd. I liked the way certain men drove and how they would raise the volume of the radio, their mouths whispering lyrics of the song like continuous burst of softly breathed sighs. I liked when one would reach over and tuck a lock of hair behind my ear. With one man, my favorite thing was simply to sit in his kitchen and listen as he would tell me stories about work. I understood so little of it and I would stop him in the middle to ask questions and those questions often led to some tangential digression that revealed another half layer of who he was. I liked coming away knowing something I hadn’t known before. I liked internalizing shards of what I believed was the truth. I thought swallowing someone else’s wisdom would lead to a good kind of change.
I once recall telling my mother about a perfect day. A man and I had gone to a specialty cheese store and then we brought my dog on a really long walk during one of those months when you don’t need a jacket but you do need a sweater and she remarked that, for me, it was never the activity that mattered; it was always the person I was spending the time with, and that meant a trip to the dry cleaner with someone I adored could be amazing. I thought of that discussion one day when someone took me to an old-fashioned candy shop an hour outside the city. The heat was on in the car and I looked out the window at the rolling farmland. It had rained the night before, hard, and a heavy mist settled across the endless green hills like the top layer of a Gobstopper. At one point, we got stuck behind a man driving a tractor. Everything between the glass and the world around me struck me as bucolic and exactly perfect – for somebody else. Pearl Jam was blaring from the radio and the guy sitting beside me – the one who knew I’d love visiting a gigantic candy shop – was singing along to the most obscure of the band’s songs. He was smart. He’d seen more of the world than I had. Still, we would never truly be right for one another. Still, I had tried so hard to convince myself we were exactly right for one another and I’d buried all my doubts so deeply I couldn’t even feel them underfoot. When it finally all fell down for real, I had to close something inside of myself so I could move forward. It was one of the changes that hardened me because I had to do it without achieving any sort of closure. You’ve heard of closure, right? It’s more fictional than the Loch Ness Monster, it manages to be both a noun and a verb, and the truly best songwriters rarely say a word about it because it’s a fucking fallacy.
I come from an articulate family and I now think I was fooled into believing that everything important should and would be articulated. But try taking that mindset out for a little spin and you’ll realize, much like I did, that the rest of the world doesn’t quite work that way. I was raised to validate the feelings of others, or at least acknowledge them, but I’d advise my younger self that others were raised differently.
I would remind the old me that, when they are used, words have power – and I would commend myself for being blessed with a fucking arsenal. When I want it to happen, the words I choose can draw blood, and I will not change that part of myself. Not ever.
I walked into the world with my face staring up and I squinted into the flares of the sun while believing that those who exist in my universe would be people who actually say what they mean and then mean what they say, and it became a casualty-driven mind fuck to realize that I exist in the soul-crunching minority. If I could tell my younger self something very important, it would be that the truth doesn’t matter to some people and the only effective way to cope sometimes is to harden, even if it means the judgment will turn inward – even if it means the one who will get judged the most harshly by me will inevitably be me.
But I’d also tell the former curly-haired me that I’ll become an adult who has friends who can tell by just the cadence of my voice how my day has really been. That these people will really see me. That they will know I’ll always keep their secrets and they will always keep mine. That while I hardly mention it anymore, they will know my greatest fear is that I will never be enough while their greatest fear for me is that I’m maybe looking for something that doesn’t entirely exist. I’d reassure my naïve first self that these special people will fully understand my capacity for strength, the way I twist my vulnerability off like a leaky faucet, but they will also know that when someone enters my life and doesn’t just flutter through my mind, but causes seismic shifts in my consciousness, that they will understand how I’ll always be someone who grins and then tries to do the backstroke in the choppy wake left behind.
The old me remembers vividly that a few people almost ruined me and that I almost allowed it to happen. I think, then, that the antiquated version of my former self – the one who still has a scrunchie somewhere in her bathroom – would actually applaud that the newest change heading my way isn’t something small or diet-related, but my entire fucking mindset. See, I was gifted some advice very recently by someone very brilliant and it felt true and absolute the second I heard it. Sometimes there is no right and wrong. Be absolutely ruthless when ruthlessness is the only true option for survival. The words drifted into my ears like a lullaby and settled with a satisfied sigh in my mind. I won’t change completely. I won’t turn into an emotional warrior. I’ll still smile my big smile each and every day, but ruthlessness will become a part of my repertoire. I’ll only trot it out under special circumstances because being vigilant and unapologetic in the art of being ruthless can be exhausting, but turning a wee bit cold is a change I maybe should have made earlier.
What else? Well, I’d tell my younger self to take more tangential journeys, both literal and metaphorical. I’d recommend becoming more flexible earlier in life to better pull off the act of flinging my legs over the shoulders of a few lucky men. I’d bang into the crevices of my still-developing mind the understanding that the first sixty red flags I see should serve as an actual deterrent instead of causing me to launch into some bullshit act of analysis wherein I contemplate the evolution of what caused those flags to flap in the first place, because all the studying of someone else’s psyche will lead to is a great big headache and a very bruised soul.
But I would also implore the younger me to remain kind during my days off from being ruthless. I’d tell her to consume even more nonfiction. I’d explain that she should always stand tall in the face of adversity and toss on some heels to make her feel even stronger. And, with a huge smile, I’d inform her that when she becomes an adult, her summers will feel like real freedom and the freedom will taste like candy.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Her Twitter is @nell_kalter