Now that I have students who are in Senior High (approximately 15 to 17 years old), I find myself awfully reflective of my own teenagehood. It seems strange to think that I myself was once that young. I watch as they joke and trade stories, as they sing the songs of their youth with fast and reckless joy. I make a feeble attempt to carve a place for my 16-year-old self among them.
Who would she have befriended? How would she have answered the questions I am asking them now? Most curious of all: would she be happy?
Among the bunch is a 22-year-old. Despite the small age gap, she gets along with the others just fine. She teases the boys and builds rapport with the girls; she rolls her eyes in jest when they call her Ate. (Older sister)
Yesterday I asked the class what happiness looked like for them.
“A cheesy pizza.”
“Watching the sunset on the beach.”
When it was finally her turn, she gave this answer: “My kids.”
I paused. Kids?!
I learned that day that she was a mother to two young boys, one 6, the other 3. I asked if I could see their photos. They are adorable — the younger one looks almost exactly like her. I learned that day that you can never assume a person’s story, that people will always have the capacity to surprise you.
Today I asked them to share a vivid memory. A lot wrote about their firsts. They painted paragraphs about young love, unrequited love, and these things felt familiar. They were things my own 16-year-old self would’ve written about if she was a part of my class. Yes, she would’ve been happy to jot down the pains and joys that came with being in love. She wouldn’t have known it but reading through their papers now, it is pretty obvious: her thoughts, the ones she had considered revolutionary, wouldn’t really have been all that special or unique.
Most 16-year-olds can wax poetic about romance.
But my 22-year-old wrote something that broke my heart. Hers was the story of being 15 and pregnant, her stomach likened to looking “as big as the sun. She wrote about her ex-boyfriend. She wrote about bruises on her arms. She wrote about four punches that landed on her stomach. She wrote about a screwdriver and how it almost found itself on the pulse of her neck.
She ended the essay with the words “I was lucky.”
How is one so young able to carry the weight of that pain? I did not know how to process her trauma but I could hear the tirade racing through my 27-year-old heart.
I prayed for this girl, the one who smiled a lot and joked around with her younger classmates. I prayed that she’d find herself wrapped in joy everyday, a joy big enough to eclipse the past, a joy bigger than she could have ever hoped to dance in.
I thought about my 16-year-old self again. She must’ve thought back then, because of her own romantic failings, that she was sad. That she was a story made of perpetual angst and disappointment. But I’m looking at it now, seeing it from the lens of a woman in her late 20’s, and when you strip it off its high school drama, the truth is that she was young and happy. It didn’t seem so at the time but it is clear, oh-so clear, now.
She was young and happy and lucky, truly lucky. She was practically the luckiest girl alive.