I know it’s summer time but since it’s that time of year when graduation speeches abound, including the rules for life speech falsely attributed to Bill Gates,  and it’s the last summer before my oldest goes off to high school, I figured the time was right to put my thoughts together for her. Because at the time it rolls around and we’re really in the thick of it, I’m not so sure I’ll be able to put my thoughts together too cohesively.

So, to my daughter, entering high school…

At the end of this summer you’ll be entering a brave new world where there are lots of options, opportunities and a lot of new people – peers, coaches, teachers, administrators, staff and lots more kids and parents than you’ve ever been exposed to. High school is an amazing place where many people find their path in life, or their life partner even. Not that I’m advocating for either of those things really but you never know.

Some say the high school years are the best years in your life. I say that’s a sad statement and you don’t want to count your best years so young, but they can be pretty fun. And crazy. And hilarious. And eye opening.  And sometimes hard and confusing too. You’ll learn so much about yourself, about friendship, about community, and about the world as a whole – good, bad and confounding.

I went through my own high school years a little blind and most of what I learned I realize I actually learned in retrospect. I really wish I had kept my eyes a bit more open and taken more advantage of what was presented to me, but alas, it was what it was. And now, though I know you’ll learn your very own batch of lessons, I want to share mine with you. The things I know now that I wished I knew then. And the things that I think will allow you to learn more than I ever did!

Of course there are the lessons in class and all the information you’ll take in, but beyond that there are the lessons even bigger than that.

So, in no particular order…

1. Celebrate your newness. Remember that all your classmates will all be freshman and therefore also new to this whole scene. Some will pretend they know what they’re doing how could they? It’s all so new. So revel in the collective newness and celebrate the fact that you are all inexperienced. Wear it on your sleeve in a very exposed way. Laugh at your errors. Ask for help. Inquire where or what or who something is even if you think you should already know it. Don’t be afraid to look lost or confused or in awe. If you celebrate the fact that you are unfamiliar with this whole scene, you’ll allow others to celebrate it too and you’ll alleviate any teasing from upper classman because most of their teasing is about the fact that you are new. If you’re already wearing it, what’s to tease??

2. Form your own opinions. Whatever you decide to do, study, try, taste, or experience, someone will have a story to tell you about whether you should or shouldn’t do it based on the experience they had. Listen to the stories with your mind wide open. Then open your eyes to all the possibilities and come to your own conclusions. Look at all the people, all the classes, all the teachers, parties and clubs.  Then make your own story.

3. Show your awe. If you see something amazing or hear something wild or meet someone mind-blowing, show your awe. Don’t hide behind a mask of coolness. Wear your awe. Share your awe. And you will allow others to do the same.

4. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”  When faced with something new – a concept, a big word, a book, a food, an idea, whatever – if you don’t know, say “I don’t know.”  It leaves you open to the possibilities of learning more and seeing more and discovering whole new worlds. A cautionary tale to emphasize my point… When I was about 19, I was at a friend’s house and they were serving whole artichokes with butter. I had never seen anyone eat them before and while everyone else was super excited, I was afraid to expose my naiveté. Rather than saying “I don’t know” I said, “I don’t like those” and so I missed out on a chance to try something new and really delicious. While everyone else sat around the table drooling, and pulling leaves off these exotic plants and dipping them in vats of butter, including one other friend who admitted he didn’t know, I sat there feigning my disdain. It was years before anyone offered me an artichoke again. So when someone asks you if you know this answer or that or if you know about a certain band or scientific procedure or if you know how to tango or drive, don’t pretend to know, don’t pretend to not like it, simply say “I don’t know” so you can share in this new experience and gather the information you need to gather.

5. Eat well and eat enough. As you make your way through classes and homework and practices and socializing, don’t forget to eat good foods and eat enough. Eat the foods that make you strong and give you power to think and do. Eat the foods that will allow you to fully engage with the world, to learn the subjects you want to learn, to play the sports, bang the drum, and communicate and play in the strongest way possible. Sprinkle in some of the other not so good foods too for fun, but treat them like the luxury they are; not everyday sustenance but every now and again indulgence. Eating well will give you a distinct advantage in whatever you do.

6. Bring your whole self to the table.  You are strong, smart, beautiful, creative, thoughtful, innovative and powerful. Remember that when you are dealing with teachers, peers, people you have crushes or want to befriend. When you come to the table, bring your whole amazing self. Don’t shrink to impress – a boy, girl or otherwise. Don’t lose your voice for fear it might seem like too much or too loud or too opinionated. Don’t diminish your abilities in order to make someone else feel bigger. If someone else feels bigger because you lessen, they are not someone you should be hanging out with anyway. As your mother, I realize this advice might come back to bite me when you speak up against something I say, but I’m willing to take that risk in the face of your being your strongest, most powerful self.

7. Choose real experiences over virtual ones. If you have the choice between hanging out with real people, going on real adventures, trying real things in real places, choose that always over a virtual experience. If, for example, you are given the choice between watching a movie and rock climbing, or going for a walk around the block with friends vs. a Facebook chat, choose the realness. The screen will be available always, but the real life adventure might not. You won’t remember the time you watched Hulu all night or got a high score on a video game, but you will remember the hike you took with friends when it started to pour or the meandering walk you took around the city with a dear, dear friend.

8. Be here now. Be present. Love the ones you’re with. When you are with friends, at a show or on a hike, in a class or sitting on the side of a mountain, ignore incoming texts and phone calls that pull you away from fully experiencing where you are and who you’re with. (unless it’s me of course wondering where you are and why you’re not home!) Don’t let the lure of virtual greener grass pull you away from being fully present with the people and places you are actually with.

9. Be nice to the school support staff. The custodians, the lunch ladies, the crossing guards, and all the other support staff do A LOT of work for not a lot of money. Be nice to them. Learn their names. Say good morning. Find out something about who they are and what they like. Pick up garbage in the hallways. Put your tray away neatly. Give a wave. Treat them like fellow human beings who are walking this same earth as you and working hard to make your world run a little smoother. And not that this is the only reason why, but they will be the ones to let you in the school after hours when you accidently leave your study notes in your locker.

10. Join something. Whatever it is, join something. A club, a team, a squad, a support group. Whatever it is. High school is about learning and most of the learning takes place outside the classroom.  By joining something you’ll learn about your own desires, abilities, working in a group, creating something amazing PLUS, you’ll meet lots more people than you would if you just go to class and then go home. You might forget a lot of what you learn in US history but you’ll always remember that bus ride home from the county tournament or the night you stayed up all night with friends to get the yearbook to the printer in time or the way that kid in your Spanish club could make you laugh like no other.

11. Give a hearty handshake and look people in the eye. Whether you are being introduced for the first time or greeting someone for the thousandth time, greet them with a hearty handshake and look them in the eye. The connection made can be just seconds long, but when done with intention and intensity, it can be the most connecting thing you can possibly do.

When you meet a new person, hold their gaze for an extra second. When you come home from school in the afternoon, look your parents in the eye and give them a big hug, look at your siblings. Linger there for just a second or two longer until you feel that essential connection made. It might be uncomfortable at first but it will soon become a part of you and you will be remembered more, you will get the part or the job, it will energize you and the person you are greeting and you will create a human bond that can significantly increase your serotonin levels thereby making you happier, healthier, and cooler too.

12. Listen to your gut. Whatever you decide to do, wherever you decide to go, whomever you decide to hang out with, whatever parties you decide to attend or groups you plan to join, before you do anything, listen to your gut. Is there a part of you that’s questioning your decision? Give that place a little time and space. Sit in the decision. Tune into what your body, mind, heart and ego are saying, then follow that feeling. Listening to your gut will help keep you out of harm’s way more often than not. It will bring you to the right people, places and things and it will let you have more fun than you ever dreamed possible. Which is definitely one of the goals of high school.

So learn a lot. Have fun. Make good memories and don’t forget we’re here if you need us.