My spring semester, junior year in college, I became the President of Furman Creative Collaborative, and my first event as president was “Dear Freshman Me.” We set up a booth in front of the library on the last day of class. On colorful cards, students can write a letter to their freshman selves.
I officially finished my first year of teaching and also my first year of adulthood. I’ve learned a lot this past year, and to reflect on a year of personal and emotional growth, I’m paying tribute to one of my fondest college memories.
• • •
Dear First-Year, Post Grad Me,
I am writing you today from the day that you will wish would have come sooner when you’re exhausted, frustrated, afraid, and feel like a failure. By the end of this journey, you will be able to relate spiritually to this line from a Coldplay song: “Nobody said it was easy, no one ever said it would be this hard.”
Right now, you are a bright-eyed, hopeful, naive 22-year-old with an open heart and mind, eager to take the world by the helm. With every passing year, you’ve overcome some of the most difficult challenges that life has offered you. You’ve graduated college and accomplished most of the goals you’ve set for yourself, even surpassing some of your own expectations. I’m proud of you—I know you are, too.
But life has only just begun.
From this point forward, be prepared to be overwhelmed all of the time. You’re about to embark on a new career that you didn’t prepare for, and at first, that feeling of unpreparedness is going to drive you nuts. You’re hyper-organized and have a Type A personality, and you’re going to want to excel immediately. So will everyone else around you. This is the culture at Teach For America; all the pressure, especially pressure emanating from your excellent peers, will exhaust you to no end. But trust the process, for it will only make you a better teacher and a much better person.
When you’re overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to ask for help, advice, and forgiveness. The worst disservice you could give yourself is silence. You’re impatient, stubborn, and a perfectionist, and you will relentlessly work until you get it right—alone. But you can’t go through this work and this life on your own. There are simply things that you don’t know because you haven’t experienced them, and the only way you will learn is by listening to others’ stories. Accept your ignorance and naïveté. Accept the fact that you don’t know a lot of things. Then, open yourself up to others: ask for their help and be open to receiving their help. Ask for advice and don’t be afraid to look foolish when you do, for you’ll only look like a fool when you fail to ask. And most importantly, be comfortable with asking for forgiveness. You will make a lot of mistakes (and I really mean a lot). But, just like you will tell your students, the earlier you make mistakes, the faster you will learn to become better. So, don’t hide under your pride or pretenses; people are more forgiving than you think.
Adulting is hard because adulting is awkward. Out of the college bubble, where proximity and convenience were your best friends, relationships of all kind in the adult world are much more difficult to start and even more difficult to maintain. First, you’ll fall for the novelty and thrill of dating in the adult world. You’ll meet a lot of people and realize that out of the “Furman bubble” you don’t repel the opposite sex as much as you thought you did. You’ll have plenty of stories to make others laugh, and no matter the heartbreak or headaches, you’ll be more thankful for the experience than regretful.
But you’ll also realize how much the male gaze is deemed important to many single, heterosexual females, including you initially. It’s going to become frustrating once you realize that some female friendships amount to boys at the end of the day; no matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to give your friends the kind of affection that they seek. But as a feminist, understand that your choice in focusing on yourself and others’ choice to pursue relationships are equally important and deserving of respect.
Therefore, seek friendships that push you to grow as an individual. What you put into the Universe, you will get out. The people you keep in close proximity will influence your thoughts, actions, and reactions from the Universe. List your strengths and weaknesses and be intentional with your friendships. Surround yourself with people who help you keep all the positive things you love about yourself and those who possess the qualities that you hope to imbue. Don’t meddle in people’s problems and offer advice only when asked—remember, no one needs you to be their “mom.” Always be honest and genuine with yourself and others. Have difficult conversations, be vulnerable, and embark on lifelong learning journeys with friends. Find your voice, advocate for your identity, push others to grow in areas you naturally feel your strength, and seek to understand. And, as always, never lose your ability to have fun with anyone, anywhere.
Choose yourself first. You know how flight attendants always remind you to put the oxygen mask on you first before helping others? In life, it’s no different. You’ll be pulled in so many different directions (remember, prepare to be overwhelmed all the time). Even when you’re fighting an internal battle, you have to show up ready at 9:05 am every morning in front of your students. Take care of yourself. The more time you take for your well-being (even if it’s just marathoning Law & Order SVU for 15 hours), especially when there isn’t much of it, the more time, patience, and love you will be able to give to your students, colleagues, family, and friends.
Keep your Saturdays work-free, go to the beach every week, decline a few invitations, and don’t ever apologize in the name of self-care. FOMO aka “fear of missing out” may be real in college, but in the adult world, it’s totally self-imposed. The truth is, nobody really cares when you don’t attend a party or a function… as long as it’s not mandatory for everyone. Miss a school meeting or the quarterly conference? Prepare for an onslaught of shady texts. But if you miss a Christmas sweater party? You missed out, but nobody missed you.
Children will forget the large things you did, like messing up your lesson or almost burning the class down, but will remember the small things you didn’t do, like forgetting to bring candy for their birthday. In other words, children need you to care about the things that they care about. Make learning fun—make your love for them and your passion for learning alongside them a priority for you. At the end of the day, your administrators might tell you that data and testing are important. But at the end of it all, you all know why you’re there, and it’s the kids. Remind yourself of your “why” every day, especially on the toughest days. It will not only help you carry on to June 2nd but also push you to be your very best for your students. They will see that you showing up every day and giving your all means that you care about their education, and in turn, they too will care.
Finally, love yourself. You’re not perfect, but you are enough. Take small opportunities each day to think positively about yourself rather than criticizing yourself for the little things. Always humble yourself, but do so not by deflecting praise or replaying an infinite loop of negative feedback in your head. Make peace with your shortcomings, find strength in your potential, and ground yourself in your dreams.
Finally, I pray that you will never create limitations within yourself, for there are already many barriers out there in the world. You always choose the road less traveled by, one filled with many challenges, but you choose this not because it is easy but because it is hard. As President Kennedy stated in his speech on the nation’s space effort:
We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.
You set sail on this journey because you know that it’s more than just about you; this life is more than just your own. For whatever discovery you will come across, whoever you meet along the way, and however you act in response to challenges and acceptances, choose thoughtfully the course in which occasion and conscience demand, for you, those around you, and the people watching you, will become all the better for it.