A Profound Conversation With a Former Student
Before my caffeine-guzzling, pajama-dwelling days as a grad student, I worked as a middle- and high-school English teacher in Phoenix, Arizona (more accurately, I worked in a little-known town called Surprise which, if you’ve never heard of it: Surprise! It exists). Teaching continues to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life – not for the weak-stomached, especially in the trenches of puberty, but it brought meaningful relationships and thoughtful moments to my life that would not otherwise have come to fruition.
I have continued correspondence with many of my former students; I find that learning is a two-way street and that their microcosms often reflect my own. Here, I will share one particular conversation, which gave me profound pause to consider the concept of change – a prevalent (if not always apparent) theme at any given stage of life’s not-so-clandestine plan to make us grow up.
My student is now a freshman in high school and, for journalistic purposes, will be referred to as “Karen.” And, also for journalistic purposes, I will be referred to as “Me.” Good luck trying to guess our real names.
KAREN: More than anything, what I’m taking away from these past few months is that it isn’t the friends you lose, or the times that meant so much to you, that matter. Even those wonderful memories that keep you from drowning on rainy days have their place, and they aren’t in the making of new ones.
I guess the bullet point version would be that it’s so easy to try to replace the people that matter most to you, because you don’t want to lose them. Lately, though, I’ve been trying to accept the fact that relationships change — because of school, their friends, and a billion other pieces that connect us to who we are — and that’s okay, so long as I accept everyone for who they are. I can’t try to put things in boxes. Life isn’t a single shade of black or white. I can’t expect people to be, either.
ME: I think you’re absolutely right. It struck me recently that I’m not very good at living in the moment – which is why nostalgia hits me harder than most, for I’m better at recognizing the value of great moments some time after the fact. In the microcosmic inertia of our day-to-day lives, it’s difficult to step back and absorb the genuine value of what we’re doing. I find myself caught up in little things, entangled with one worry or another that – frankly – isn’t the point at all. It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees, to forget that we’ve got air in our lungs and another tomorrow.
The world is just so much smaller when we live only within our own neuroses – people will say, “You MUST do this” or “You MUST be that” when the truth is…the real “musts” are the things we FORGET to do, such as spending time with people we love (and really LOVING them), waking up early to watch a beautiful sunrise, and kicking back on a lazy evening with some Oscar Wilde and hot chocolate (although he might go better with eggnog). And maybe even all of these are only part of the point. The true point, I think, is to be complete. To be curious, and to do things and be around people that make us feel meaningful, that make us feel right in our own skin. And accomplishing this, I submit, is the real endeavor of a lifetime.
To your point about people changing, I would say that’s one of the most difficult – and sometimes heartbreaking – realities to accept. The idea that certain things – especially moments we share with people that make us completely happy – may not last forever is just such a sad concept. It works against our human desire to hold on to the good. You are very perceptive and wise to consider simply accepting people for who they are, even if it’s different from who they have been, because everyone does change.
But here’s the good news, as far as I can tell: You can grow and change together. If you really care about someone, and they really care about you, there’s every reason to try bridging changes in outlook and geography. My best friend from college and I went from being roommates – that is, literally living five feet from one another – to living at opposite ends of the country. We’ve gone from the naïveté of our undergrad years to a more world-weary perspective on life as we move around in the workforce and adult world. Yet the beauty of being friends with someone I’ve known for so long is that we both understand each other almost wordlessly. We’re definitely different than we were in college, but we’re also strangely the same. Somehow, being in each others’ lives has kept us rooted to the fundamental things that make us who we are. She reminds me of who I was when I was eighteen, and that’s kind of a cool thing to be able to look back on. At 25, I’m not old (yet), but growing older does make us want to remember the people and times that made us young. It’s not about being youthful so much as it is about feeling like anything is possible. You may not understand this until later (it didn’t really hit me until last year).
KAREN: Change is a wonderful and terrible thing, in the deepest sense of both words. It can never be all “good” or “bad,” but maybe it’s better that way. These differences startle me out of the catatonic state that I so easy to settle into — a place where routines are perfect, and it isn’t necessary to dig deeper under the meaning of everything. While hard to adjust to, the only conclusion I can see (in the present situation) is that for people like me, whose lives are defined by the things that will remain constant, such as the smell of a bookstore or walking the same way to class everyday, change is a wonderful event. Painful, but only in the way that opening your eyes after laying out in the sun for a long period of time.
As much as I feel like I know what you are saying about it not being about age, but that feeling of knowing anything is possible, I know that one day it will hit me that there was something that I was missing when I first heard you say that. So for now, I’ll keep it in mind to enjoy all the little decisions I make that are based on that same feeling, on a smaller scale.
Friends are one of the great equalizers in life, it’s true. It is so amazing that you have kept up with your friend for so long — so many relationships fizzle out without the immediate sense of the other person being there, too.
ME: In a fantastic film called “The Truman Show” (starring Jim Carrey), a character says the following in response to a question about why Truman, the titular character played by Carrey, isn’t aware that his entire life has been a long-running television series:
“We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented. It’s as simple as that.”
By this, he of course means we don’t often step outside the realities that society constructs for us to question why things are the way they are, to desire to change the world, to (for instance) wonder if there’s something woefully incomplete about living a life that constricts our imagination. This is less of a problem when we are younger than when we become older, entrenched in responsibilities that override our capacity to dream and to be creative. There is something about being young that makes time and possibility stretch out in a vast and boundless landscape ahead. Hours and days tick by slowly, and the idea of living seventy, eighty more years seems like immortality in the context of our limitless youth.
The feeling is universal, but it unfortunately does fade. We do all eventually reach a point where months and years roll by rapidly, where we find ourselves blinking and missing a joke, a gesture, a conversation and maybe even an entire relationship. We wonder what happened to the places we’ve been and the places we want to go, and when those fantasies of living artistically while spinning on our last dime got replaced by a steady job and quiet routine. Age comes out of nowhere and surprises us with its practicality. When I moved to Phoenix, I traded up for a queen-sized bed and my own place, and while that was a cool adult rite-of-passage, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of nostalgia for the days when a bunk bed, a broken futon, or even the floor shared in a tiny space with two other snoring friends made me the happiest person alive.
And so I think about simplifying. All this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have our dream house or buy a comfortable bed-set or purchase the fantasy car that eats up the road along with everyone else’s share of gas (well, the last one might be a bad idea). But this is to say that it should be okay to not have those things, too. And that’s what I mean about youth. That it carries simple priorities, such as (but not limited to) traveling the world and writing the world’s “best” novel and spending time with people who bring us happiness. As the embers of possibility fade, we tend to go for objects within reach, forgetting that once upon a time, when EVERYTHING seemed within reach, we wanted simpler – and I would argue – more meaningful things.
I suppose this is why I find it so important to have old friends in my life. To be reminded that I can still be that person who writes poetry sitting atop a rickety bunk bed in the center of a closet-sized room, balancing watery hot chocolate (Nestle’s finest) on one knee and a plate of half-frozen burritos on the other, if only because that’s exactly what I want to do.