Around and About with Richard McCarthy: a message to myself at 17
The other night I dreamed that I was in the hallway of my high school and my 17 year old self was walking towards me. In the dream, he was walking right beside me, without even seeming to see me, let alone say “hi”. I woke up from the restless dream that my 17-year-old self didn’t think what it had become (namely, me) was worth noticing.
After a while, I wondered what I would say to my 17-year-old self if I could get his attention. At first, I thought I’d tell him everything I’d learned about life in the more than half a million hours I’ve lived since that age, wisdom that should inspire any young person in 17 years of letting go of his life and choosing mine.
Then I realized that adults from various stages of life and in my relationships were offering what they thought was sage advice when I was 17, a steady drumbeat of imparted instructions that they said would lead me to a good life.
I heard that drum beat in the distance, but I was marching (dancing, really) to the beat of another drum. My drum beat pounded by my pursuit of straight A’s. When I say straight A’s, I don’t mean academic grades; I mean as in Approval, Admiration, Adulation and Acclamation by my peers.
Since any barrage of advice from me to my 17-year-old self would likely suffer the same fate of being ignored, I thought I might try slipping a single suggestion through its finely tuned advice defense system instead. The wise suggestion I made was that he keep an altruistic eye on social losses, reach out to others to make sure no one hurt is left behind.
I know it’s a lot to ask of a 17 year old, but sooner or later life tends to ask a lot of those who live it well.
When I think of what that selfless eye might look like, I think of a dear friend who was born with severe cerebral palsy and about whom I wrote a column several years ago. She told me about the trials, the suffering really, that she had endured in her life at the hands of others because of her difference. In high school, besides the disappointment of not being able to participate in many teenage activities, she saw children laughing at her, mimicking the way she walked and talked in front of her.
Back then, half a century ago, and in the spirit she lived in, you weren’t going to see a “trusted adult” about hurt, psychic or otherwise, inflicted by your peers. What was the children’s business remained the children’s business.
She told me that two girls from her neighborhood always supported her. I asked her if she remembered any boys who were there for her at that time. A light lit up on her face when she told me about a popular boy who had always stood up for her, her friend. That’s what I’m talking about.
It was amazing to me when, as part of my preparation for writing this column, I looked at pictures from my high school yearbook and realized how many of my classmates I didn’t know. Admittedly, I went to a large urban high school with 700 students in my class alone. Still, seven hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year, you’d think I would know more than I do.
When I thought about why there were so many I didn’t know, I saw that the answer wasn’t that I was socially shy or awkward, not that I was a loner. The answer was that I focused on those I considered part of my teenage social caste and ignoring too many others.
When I went to my 40th high school reunion, I decided in advance to enter into a genuine and sincere relationship with those in front of me, to experience them as fully as possible, that they are part of my high school clique or not, and with no regard to their social status in high school or after high school. I followed through on that resolution and ended up having one of the best nights of my life.
Again, I have no reason to believe that my 17-year-old self would accept my suggestion to let go, or at least loosen its grip, on the magnet of greater fame on the teenage social scene. But as this young man continues to walk beside me in the corridor of my dreams, without acknowledging my existence, I would like to take him aside and give him a hug if he would let me, no need for words.
After all, we’ve been through a lot together.
Amherst resident Richard McCarthy, a longtime Springfield Republican columnist, writes a monthly column for the Gazette.