I recently attended my 40-year college reunion. I actually had no plans to go. All I remember from witnessing reunions when I was actually in college was a lot of older folks wandering around astounded by the changes, It did not seem compelling. But two of my closest college friends convinced me it would be fun. So I drove to Baltimore and joined the lanyard-wearing, doddering alumni touring campus, sharing memories from a previous century, going to watch our esteemed lacrosse team, and hearing from folks about how much our university was making a difference in the lives of its undergraduates. I am glad I got to spend time with my close friends, and it was nice to connect with a few members of the Class of '83 and hear their stories. And we all got to tell each other how great we looked and how little we had changed. Ours was a harmless mendacity.
There was one thing we all agreed upon at our reunion: the time flew by. In a conversation with a few 12th graders recently, they expressed the same sentiment. In many of our senior speeches we hear advice to ninth graders about how quickly their four years will go and encouragement to savor their experiences. The interesting part of this, in my opinion, is to consider what experiences are they referring to? Having spent more than 20 years working in high schools, I have had the incredible opportunity to speak with returning alumni at many different parts of their lives: as college students, starting their first job, beginning a family, and so on. In my hundreds of conversations a common theme arises, and to some, it may be a little surprising. But before the big reveal, I have a question for my faithful readers: What are your best recollections of your high school and college years (if that is part of your personal history)? What are those quintessential memories? Take a second and reminisce. What pops into your head?
When my college mates and I talked late into the night about our experiences, most of what we remembered and reveled in did not take place in an academic setting. It was episodic, often emotional and, on a few occasions, complete lunacy (remember, no social media back in the day). This is also true for all the alumni with whom I have caught up during their visits to Wardlaw+Hartridge and at all my previous schools. The moments that remain memorable and joyful for teenagers frequently took place with members of the community but, for the most part, were not centered on grades or accomplishments. It was their experiences with all the people who at the time were the most important folks in the world. It was during a passing moment with a teacher or on a bus ride to an athletic competition or preparing backstage during a practice for a performance. It is these moments, small and large, that bring a smile to our W+H students when they share their recollections. Of course they are proud of their achievements and recognitions, but those are often not the things that stick with them as they recount their high school days.
So what do we make of this? What did you remember when I posed the question above? There is no scientific basis for my conclusions; they are clearly anecdotally based. But my gut and my heart tell me there is something to this. So I leave you with a piece of advice that may seem counterintuitive coming from someone who has dedicated his life to scholarship and encouraging students to pursue academic excellence. The in-between times matter a lot – a whole lot. The moments after classes chatting with teachers; the time spent in and out of school with friends; the chances taken to do something that brings you joy that you are doing for fun, not to get into college; the spontaneous joyful moments with your family when the unexpected happens. These experiences for teenagers matter and very well may be the ones that define their teenage years. School and academics are constant and inevitable and vitally important, but we also need all of our young folks to make sure they do not lose sight of the other moments where lifelong memories are formed.
So I encourage students to spend time with their friends and family. I encourage parents to allow for these times to happen with the realization that maybe, just maybe, these memories will live much, much longer than the satisfaction of getting a good grade on an assessment or paper. I had the good fortune of reconnecting with some amazingly well-accomplished professionals at my reunion. But you know what? Not one of them talked about their grades or school accolades. The best stories started with, "remember that time..."