High school yearbooks often contain a Hall of Fame section where seniors give awards to their classmates. “Nicest Smile”, “Most Angelic”, “Class Clown”, “Most Athletic”, and so forth.
These Hall of Fame awards are given in fun but they do represent a reflection by high school seniors of the classmates with whom they have shared a childhood. And this reflection comes at a time when seniors are about to transition out of their childhood and into adulthood. Most face that future with a bit of apprehension but, more so, with a great deal of optimism about what the future holds.
That future can hold opportunities that seem endless. After all, commencement is another word for beginning. Commencement addresses are known for encouraging dreams and telling these young folks that they can do or be anything. The eager dreams of the young adults tend to be intoxicating and are largely a good thing.
But it also matters what those dreams are based on. In reality, 18 year olds are not commencing in life. They’ve had almost two decades to learn things and to absorb feedback in terms of not who they will become, but who they have been. That’s what the Hall of Fame represents, a reflection of the opinions their peers have formed over a long time, in fact, nearly a life time to these young folks. “Most Musical”, “Best Dresser”, “Most Likely to Succeed”.
Opinions also come from adults. Parents, teachers and others often offer their views of the young in the form of opinions. Usually these opinions are meant to be positive. However, the recipient of the opinion may or may not absorb the words in the way intended. “You are really good at math” is a wonderful encouragement from a teacher. However, it falls flat if that teacher hands out that compliment to some deserving students but not to others. “You’re so pretty” seems like a kind thing for a parent to say. But what if the pretty girl has never heard that she is smart?
Then there are the negative opinions. “You never get your homework done on time”. “Your room is always a mess”. It may be true that the child never finishes homework in a timely manner and has a messy room. Certainly the child should not get a free pass to procrastinate or be a slob. But the opinion also tells the child a story about themselves. Children tend to absorb stories.
Even positive opinions create baggage. What if the most musical members of a graduating class seek careers in music but don’t find them? Or what if they don’t wish to pursue careers in music after high school? What if the person with the nicest smile has used it to mask childhood pain? And how much success does one need to attain in order to be deemed successful? And in what ways?
None of what I’ve said is meant to dismiss yearbook Halls of Fame nor is it meant to discourage young dreams. The world needs more dreamers.
But it may also be worth noting and remembering that we all carry baggage and much of that baggage is constructed from the expectations that others have had of us. Those expectations are made by humans without our consent to be the subject of such opinions. They create goals, expectations and pathways for us, chosen by others.
We subconsciously carry these opinions into everything we do. Eventually, we either absorb these opinions of others and internalize them or we may rebel against them. In any case, these opinions carry weight and we are never as light on our feet as would be ideal on a long journey.
It is important to appreciate the well wishes and kind thoughts of others. Certainly kindness and good intentions should not be discouraged. In fact, positive words should be handed out generously. But it is also important to find ways to avoid internalizing the opinions of others to the point that we allow ourselves to be defined by those opinions. Then we end up trying to live out our lives seeking the continued praise of others. Eventually our entire essence can seem to depend on those opinions.
The most athletic folks may suffer an permanent injury. The most likely to succeed may also be the most likely to fall into depression if not enough success is achieved. But even when misfortune occurs or a pathway is blocked, hope and optimism for an 18 year old is still out there to be had. However, that optimism is best enjoyed if it’s not tied to opinions from the past.
As grownups, we do well to encourage children and generously compliment them when warranted. Halls of Fame are also good things as reflections among those who are about to move on.
However, I think the lessons for the young need to contain more stories about the lives of others and less in the way of commentary about the listeners. The perseverance and bravery of Harriet Tubman may be a good place to start. She escaped from slavery and then returned to danger to free numerous other slaves. Maybe the resilience of Bill Gates would be an example. He dropped out of college and failed at business before co-founding Microsoft.
High school seniors will not face what they think they will face when voting on their class Hall of Fame or listening to commencement addresses. They will face something different. Equipping them with examples of human inspiration will serve them much better than weighty opinions when they need to be nimble while facing the unexpected in life.
Copyright March 2019