On High School Reunions and Gratitude

Last weekend was my five-year high school reunion, and it got me thinking a lot about the concept of gratitude. 

For many reasons, I was apprehensive about coming back to campus. Towards the end of my senior year of high school, there were unpleasant events that took place that made it difficult and painful for me to think about my high school experience for the past few years. I have found that the easiest way for me to stay focused on my current goals and have the motivation to keep moving on is by pushing away my memories, both the good and bad. However, a couple of years ago, I started working in a research group, working on a project that is important to me and has made me excited about science again. Every now and then, I would have flashes memories of high school that could only be described as fond. I know that so much of my curiosity and passion for science was developed at the school, and those are not things I want to forget. I decided to attend the reunion, because I finally felt I was strong enough to show up, reconnect with some of my peers, and be okay. Revisiting school brought back a lot of the memories, with almost the same intensity as before. 

Before my chemistry class in tenth grade, I always thought of scientists as those socially awkward, frizzy-haired men you always see on television, like the main characters in The Big Bang Theory. I never related to that iconic image, and although I found science mildly interesting, I was fairly certain that I was not the target demographic for professional science training. In my freshman year of high school, just before entering the upper school, my biology teacher told me that she was considering enrolling me in the honors track for Chemistry, something I could have never predicted. I remember standing in her office hours, stunned, when she told me, convinced that she had confused me with someone else. Her belief in me, her recognition of my abilities when I did not believe in myself, was what encouraged me to work harder than I had ever worked before. I fell in love with the class. The bright colors, the neat, balanced reactions, and the physical concepts that, when distilled heavily from complicated mathematical models, seemed rather intuitive and logical. 

Part of why I had such a positive experience is because of my chemistry teacher. She was such an inspiration to me, as a fellow woman in science, someone who was dedicated, organized, caring, and carried a calm authority as she conducted the laboratory experiments. I deeply admired the confidence she seemed to exude; it was something that I wanted to emulate myself.

I often felt that my high school environment was critical and unforgiving. Recently, I was talking to my younger brother, who graduated from my school two years ago, about his experience. He told me that even though he had an overall positive experience at the school, he felt that none of the adults on campus assured him that making mistakes did not define him as a student and that they could serve as a learning experience, something that he only realized in college. Fortunately, I had one person in my life in high school who had told me that, and that was my chemistry teacher. Several days a week, after my AP Chemistry class in my junior year, I would stay back and discuss everything with her, my life, my friendships, my family, and she told me about her experiences. I found her experiences, her strength, and her confidence so comforting and inspiring. She struck me as someone very similar to me, with similar traits of dedication and ambition, but she had wisdom and confidence that I aspired towards. She was like my cheerleader, telling me that I needed to be confident, and telling me that my mistakes didn’t define me, and that what mattered is that I bounced back from them and appreciated what I had learned. In an environment when it felt like everyone was criticizing me, this validation, from someone I admired and respected so much, meant everything to me. It was the most important support I had at the time, my one bubble of hope in what felt like an overwhelmingly stressful environment. 

I acknowledge that not all this is the fault of the school, for there are many pressures, such as the competitiveness of peers and their parents, that contribute, arguably even more forcibly. Many marveled at how tolerant and wise my parents seemed. I have since talked to some of my peers from high school, some of those whom at the time I envied and feared would judge me for my inadequacies, and I realized only after college that the academic pressures they faced at home were more than anything I could fathom. My parents were not those parents. Although they pushed me to succeed, they give me considerable freedom to explore my interests and expressed pride when I worked hard and achieved things. They did not bombard me with overwhelming criticism, and I believe they strove to be approachable. But there were issues at home that were not always apparent on the surface. I did not always feel safe when it came to my immediate and extended family, as the culture of my family clashed with an identity that was not my choice, that I fought to suppress. In school, I always felt somewhat like an imposter. I felt that most of the students I was interacting with in AP Chemistry and some of my other classes saw themselves as “elite” students, something I never identified with. I felt that my successes in Chemistry were based on luck rather than true ability, and I never felt like I truly belonged in the AP Chemistry group. I grew to be too reliant on my teacher to provide me with the safe validation that I didn’t always feel at home, and the validation that I never offered myself, because I was so busy punishing myself. 

What makes this so difficult for me is that although I have harbored negative feelings over these years, how I felt the school and my parents seemed to be punishing me for having feelings that I did not want to have in the first place, how I never felt I had the time and space to grieve the loss of a relationship that was important to me, as I was so ashamed of the very fact that it was so important to me — despite all this, I still feel so much gratitude. While many of my peers in college seem to generally accept that high school was overall unpleasant, and it is tempting for me to agree, it would not be fair of me to do so. Being at my school was so important for my growth as a student, and as a person, and for most of my time there, I loved it and appreciated what I was learning. It is easy to forget these things when my most recent memories of my time there are unpleasant, but retrospectively, it is something that I would like to acknowledge and appreciate. 

I have so much gratitude for the role my chemistry teacher played in my life, despite everything that happened. She was an incredible teacher, one who was able to distill complicated mathematically motivated theories into simple, logical concepts that students without a background in calculus could intuitively grasp – something I appreciate now, after college, more than ever. She was an inspiring role model and mentor, someone who appeared so strong. She was there for me at a time when I found it difficult to approach others. She was incredibly kind, and she went out of her way to help me and make me feel comfortable, both in class, and at the beginning of my senior year. I knew she cared about all her other students as well, and she was and is loved by so many. I still believe that she is kind, despite the unfortunate and complicated situation that followed at the end of my in my senior year. I believe she is kind and good and meant well, and I feel sorry that my feelings and actions caused her discomfort. I am grateful for what she taught me, not only about chemistry, but about life, and about how it is okay to allow myself to embrace confidence and happiness. I have learned that confidence is not about knowing all the answers or expecting myself to perform perfectly, but knowing failure is part of the process and having conviction in my ability, not to perform well every time, but to learn and grow from failures. Just two years ago, I started taking a suggestion she once gave me about making the effort, every day, to write five things that I am grateful for, even if they are incredibly mundane things. This has been immensely helpful for me.

Processing this gratitude makes it so very difficult, because sometimes, it’s just easier allow myself to be consumed with sadness and anger. A huge part of my process has been recognizing that people are incredible, smart, and kind, but also flawed. I have to come to terms with the fact that my high school experience was painful and uncomfortable, but also inspiring, life-changing, the very reason I am embarking on a science research career now, and not something I ever want to forget. I am grateful to have had someone in my life who cared so much about me, even if that caring eventually led her to become overwhelmed. Today, I try to offer my friends and family the same validation my teacher gave me, and I have realized that I don’t need her to be that validating person in my life anymore. I can be that person myself. Sometimes, we have to accept that we will never get the closure we want; sometimes, closure does not come with a conversation. Sometimes, closure involves only internal processing and changing the way we think about things, rather than changing other people. But through that process, we become stronger. We learn that life can be unbearably painful, but the pain is something that we can handle, learn, and grow from, and for that, I am incredibly grateful. 

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The Crush I Never Allowed Myself to Feel…Until Now

Nothing destroys self-worth, self-acceptance and self-love faster than denying what you feel. Without feelings, you would not know where you are in life. Nor would you know what areas you need to work on. Honor your feelings. Allow yourself to feel them. ~Iyanla Vanzant

When I first met you, I was amazed. You are beautiful, I can say this without hesitation. I saw the way they all looked at you. The way they rushed to offer you unsolicited favors, the way they desperately grasped for your attention, for your warm gaze to rest on them. But when I spoke to you, I couldn’t help marveling “Who is this person?” You were driven, you were dedicated, you were smart, you motivated, you were curious, you were strong, you were independent, you admitted your weaknesses and you sought to improve them. You had all the strengths that I wanted to possess myself, all these incredible qualities encapsulated in one person. You were too good to be true.

Sometimes I wonder if the universe brought me to you, that your purpose in my life was to teach me something about myself. I remember when I saw you, you flashed me a wide smile, brimming with the confidence and social courage I could never imagine possessing myself. Maybe unconsciously, I knew I was attracted to you even then because girlish shyness hindered me from smiling back. Because when that kid in the front started sitting in my seat, I grasped at the opportunity to sit at the empty desk next to you. A left-handed desk. I am not left-handed.

You were the one who spoke to me first. When we started talking, it just felt so natural. We had some inherent similarities. We shared some of the same goals, the same fears, the same insecurities. Somehow, I knew, in the back of my mind, that you would never feel as strongly as I did. But when you told me you thought I was cool, and that we had a lot in common, that I made you feel inspiration and confidence, I felt a new kind of light happiness, something no words would be able to adequately describe. I hadn’t felt that way in an over a year. You made me happy beyond words, simply by your words of affirmation.

I also lived in constant fear around you. What if you discovered that my feelings were stronger than those of an average friendship? What if the intensity of my caring for you freaked you out, drove you away, leaving me to never experience that light feeling again? I held on, somehow hoping that our friendship was sustainable. I don’t know if you noticed how I listened to you. I hung onto your every word. I tried to assure you that your fears about your inadequacy were utterly false. Every time you vented to me, comparing yourself to others, I held myself back. I wanted to tell you that I didn’t understand how you could compare yourself to them when you were the only one I saw. You were the most beautiful, most ambitious, most self-aware person I had ever met. But I suppressed those feelings because I was ashamed of feeling them, when I knew that you would never return them, and that they had the potential to drive you away from my life.

I laughed when she suggested that the reason I woke up for his lectures at eight in the morning was that I was in love with him. I loved his brilliance, his knowledge, his helpfulness, his patience. I loved the lessons he taught me. I respected him. I respected you, too, but I loved you and only you. I laughed when she said that, staring at the floor and ignoring the fire on the surface of my cheeks. I pretended it was him. I wonder how you would react if you knew it was never for him, it was always for you. Sometimes I wonder if you knew all along, if you knowingly strung me along in a cruel little game, knowing that you only had eyes for others. Maybe you were the one who had eyes for him. But even if so, I cannot blame you. For, assuming that you knew, I am as guilty as you, for I wore my feelings for him openly on the mask that concealed my feelings you, without concern for the fact that he might interpret them as real. It didn’t even occur to me.

It would be so easy for me to hate you. For the pain I felt, for the shock when you abruptly stopped talking to me, for the confusion I felt when you tried to pop back into my life as if nothing had ever happened. The anger I felt when you said “I love you” so casually when those three words meant so much to me. For a while, I almost convinced myself that I hated you. But I know I could never hate you, even if I tried.

Today, almost a year later, I still feel some shame for how I felt. Catching a brief glimpse of him sent me back down that road I have blocked in my mind, for my own sanity, so that I could focus on working towards the relatively lofty academic goals that we shared. But it was easier this time. I spoke up to my support group about it in confidence. One of the facilitators told me something I hadn’t considered before.

“You loved this person, and it might help to honor that allowing yourself to have feelings for this person taught you about yourself. And so even though your feelings weren’t reciprocated, it was the process of feeling that has taken you out of your shell.” And it’s true. I am no longer in denial, and I have you to thank for that.

I loved you. And maybe a part of me still does. I respect that you don’t feel the same way.

I can’t explain the physical relief I feel, admitting that I loved you, remembering the parts of your personality that I admire and love so much, the parts that inspire me, rather than the pain. It is like letting go of the breath I’ve been holding for a year, like resurfacing from the water after trying not to drown. I know that admitting this to myself will help me move on from you.

I admire you and respect you greatly. I have been allowing myself to smile at others, the way I never could at you. I have been channeling the confidence, independence, strength, and grace with which you carry yourself when interacting with others. You have changed me, for the better, in ways that you could never imagine. I am rooting for you. I hope that you find all the success in the world, and I will celebrate when you get there. But more importantly, I hope you find peace with yourself, and maybe even with someone else, someone you truly desire.

You told me that you were grateful to have met me. And I am incredibly grateful to have met you. You showed me that I could still feel, and you have given me the brightest hope. Sincerely, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.