Looking back and stepping forward

Looking back and stepping forward

Jacqui Haining, Staff Columnist

I have come to believe I am of an entirely different generation from the three grades below me. As though COVID-19 caused a ripple in time itself, I find myself reflecting on the self-awareness and social consciousness I see in my junior, sophomore, and freshman friends compared to the blank ignorance I experienced at their age pre-pandemic. I know what many of you are thinking right now: “this girl is 18 years old. She can spew her wisdom all she wants, but at the end of the day, she’s practically still a child.” Yes, I am young, but my wisdom is hard-earned. Hear me out.

My senior fall was the first opportunity to mix with the underclassmen in nearly two years. I had just about forgotten how to interact with students in other grades. Before the pandemic, I was a sophomore, fixed between the upperclassmen I knew from afternoon activities like the musical and the freshmen I had gone to middle school with. Now, I am suddenly left stranded at the top of the chain, one arm holding on to the youngsters below, the other flailing desperately into the eye-catching void of college life.

There is something about the pandemic high school experience that is so worthy of self-pity. Looking back, I feel quite disappointed. Not just disappointed in the cards I’ve been dealt or the timing of COVID-19 but disappointed in myself. The pandemic era, as it turned out, was when I learned how to stand up for myself, how to be myself unapologetically and come out. I had to grow up so fast then that I feel like I haven’t actually had any teenage years. But who can I blame except myself?

Let me paint you a picture of my sophomore self, and then we can talk about the younger grades according to my current observations. I was sad. Quite sad, in fact, and worried and hyper-focused and catastrophically anxious. My mind was dominated by figuring out who I wanted to be in the world. I had little room to process my concerns, and my hesitation left me chewed up in the unsupportive cogs which pushed me through that stage of life.

I was perceived as masculine then, and my feminine soul was cracking through the mirage. My thoughts went in a repetitive cycle: I would think, for a mild example, “God, I wish I could get my ears pierced,” followed by, “God, what would my parents, or classmates think if I got my ears pierced?” followed by “No, I won’t do it; it’s going to turn out really badly,” followed by, “I am so sad I can’t get my ears pierced,” and back to “God, I wish I could get my ears pierced,” and so on.

But now, when I look at the younger grades, and especially when I look at those of middle and elementary school ages, I am incomprehensibly jealous. So many of them not only seem to have the confidence I lacked in my younger years but also the exposure to information and positive representation of LGBTQ+ identities. Perhaps it is the underclassmen I speak with, a pink tinted view of the youth today, or a heightened acuity that I have now post-coming out, but it still seems that way to me.

I am still, years later, angry at my younger self for not having the confidence to dress how I wanted, not spending more time earlier on with people I could comfortably be myself around, and not being open about my identity. The underclassmen seem to know themselves so well; why couldn’t I act on my feelings regarding my presentation and identity as I see so many doing now?

Speaking of jealousy, I remember talking to a mother of two boys, each between four and 10, I believe. She talked about how she lets them grow their hair out if they want, wear the clothes usually deemed “too girly,” and how she neither shuns them for any effeminate behavior nor praises the reverse. God, I wish I had that growing up; the gendered expectations I received at home, at school, and with friends as a kid had a serious effect on my younger self’s lack of confidence. I can only imagine how much sooner I would have expressed myself authentically, stuck around people that made me feel good about who I am, and cared less about the opinions of others had I been born just a few years later.

But where will these regrets get me? I need to recognize my anger and my jealousy for the vices they are. I will not rest, be content with my progress, or live in the moment of my current life as long as I’m stuck in my head, let alone move forward to bigger and better things.

Maybe, while I wallow about like someone thrice my age, there are moments of joy slipping between my fingers every minute. There is something to be said about convening with your younger self as a method of healing, but there is a whole lot more to be said about celebrating society’s progress as a cure to the hopelessness I felt as a child. Maybe then, just then, I’ll look up and take in all the good around me.