The Real Me
Part of my summer work (the part I'm actually doing) involves teaching a course for high school students on campus for a summer school program. As a teenager, I participated in a similar program, and it was the best moment of my high school life. Never mind prom or making out with my high school boyfriend in the Wal-Mart parking lot. My one summer away from home promised me that there was a world beyond my stifling small town and that when I got there, I could be anyone I wanted to be.
Two days ago, I walked into my classroom and saw that someone had been writing on the board. They'd drawn a diagram with two columns. At the top of one, it said, "The Me People See." Under it, there was picture of a smiling girl. The other column was labeled "The Real Me." Underneath it was a completely empty column, nothing but eraser dust and the ghost of earlier lessons. When I looked at it, I felt heartbreakingly tender towards its artist. I remember that. I remember feeling like the person I was didn't count, was just blank space in a world full of color and light. I remember feeling like I was foreign and unknown, even to myself. I remember feeling so lonely in my skin because I felt like what everyone saw was just an image in a fun house mirror.
I talk to my students everyday about practical things that are shatteringly important to them but mundane to me. The details of what happens when you miss a class in college ("You mean you can't make it up?!") or where you buy your books for class are the details of their unknown future. To me, they are details of my life that fold in with paying the cable bill and doing the laundry; each so present and obvious that it doesn't occur to me to explain it to them.
But sometimes, they ask me questions I still ask myself, and I know that they aren't just trying to imagine what their daily life will be like in three or four years. They are trying to fill in that blank column labeled "The Real Me." I'm teaching them standardized test prep (oh, god, the material sucks), and they ask questions like, "Will this tell me how smart I am?" I tell them no, emphatically. I explain it's just a test. I start each class by saying, "What is the ACT?" and they answer in a giggling chorus, "A GAME!" They don't really believe me, though, because right now, they have so much at stake. So they keep asking me whether it measures their intelligence, why it doesn't reflect that they are good in Math, when their scores will improve. They want evidence that they are smart enough, that their aptitude for Math means they should be a doctor or engineer, that the work they do now will pay off.
I'd like to tell them, but I can't because they cannot see this part of the future clearly, that they will be asking these questions for the rest of their lives. They'll be wondering if they are smart enough for far longer than they should. They'll wonder about the right career path long after the path has been chosen. They'll want to know if the work is paying off over and over again. The picture of who they are will come into focus. They'll be able to draw the outlines in deft, confident strokes. But filling in that illustration is their life's work. It is what they'll do every day. It won't always hurt, but it will always seem frighteningly unfinished. I want to explain that to them, but right now, I think it might be more important for them to hear that in three years, things will be better. And I'm not lying. Bits of my 20s really sucked, but I can say with confidence that every year is better than the one when you're 16.