It gets better…for everyone
October 4, 2010
On the set of my last production, With Glee, a musical about five wayward teenage boys sent to a remote boarding/reform school in Maine, a chalkboard hanging above the balcony carried the fictional Westbrook School’s coat of arms, as invented by our scenic designer Jen, and a motto: “The Best is Yet To Be.”
I told her that I really loved that choice of motto, both as it thematically concerned the play and the personal journeys of the characters, and as a retort to a very commonly held truism in our culture, one that I felt we were inundated with when I was a teenager: “High school is the best time of your life.” No, the motto gently said to both characters and audience, these are not the best years of these boys’ lives. With growing confidence, perspective and self-acceptance, things are only going to get better for these kids.
This past week, Dan Savage launched his It Gets Better project, sharing videos from LGBT adults about the full and happy lives they have now, in response to a disturbing number of suicides by gay teens in recent weeks, to tell LGBT teens who are suffering bullying and abuse that life gets so much better after high school, and that they should hang on and live to grow up. It’s a wonderful thing, though, not to detract at all from what Dan is trying to accomplish for gay teens, I would love to see this message extended more by all adults to all teenagers. But especially to all the misfits, all the nerds, geeks and dorks, anyone suffering bullying or ostracism, anyone being told that everything you are is wrong, anyone who feels hopelessly different or isolated or alone.
During graduation week of my senior year of high school, one of the activities of enforced fun planned for us was an address to the graduating class by a recent alumnus. I’m not sure if this speech was supposed to be inspirational, or a reality check, or what…I forget his name, but the speaker regaled us with glory days tales about how he’d been a big, cocky, good-looking football star who everyone loved. He couldn’t hack it in college, though, and dropped out after one semester, developed a drug addiction, got his girlfriend knocked up, and wound up waiting tables at his dad’s pizza joint. His thesis statement, his conclusion from his own experience, was “appreciate this time, because high school is the best time of your life.” I think he actually said “it’s all downhill from here.” A friend sitting next to me in the auditorium said, “So just shoot me now.”
Anyone who tells you that high school comprises the best years of your life is lying to you. Maybe they just don’t know any better themselves. Maybe high school WAS the best time of their lives, in which case they should be pitied, not listened to. Maybe they’re lying deliberately for more sinister motives; I’m not really sure. But they ARE lying. Life gets so much better.
There’s a corollary lie that was told to me, and probably to others, with words and without, over the whole course of my growing up: that adulthood is awful. Everything that adults said about adulthood made it sound tedious, boring, scary and expensive, with not much redeeming quality to recommend it. You have to work at a job, pay bills and clean the house. You have to wear pantyhose to your job (to which I silently, internally replied, “no, that just means I can’t have that kind of job”). Get good grades or you’ll wind up flipping burgers.
“In the real world, you’re going to have to learn to work with all kinds of people,” was the most repetitive, cloying, condescending refrain I heard from teachers, as a solitary girl who resisted forced group work.
And certainly most of the adults around me weren’t people I wanted to grow up to be. They yelled, they lied, they spent their days flaunting their arbitrary power over children, telling me what I couldn’t do and that everything I was was somehow wrong. They were condescending and unfair. They MADE adulthood look stupid and awful. I told myself I would never be one. Don’t trust anyone over 30, as the line from a movie went.
All of those people were lying, too. Adulthood is wonderful. You get to live on your own terms. You have the power to make your life what you want it to be. It is scary sometimes, and it is expensive, but in almost every other respect, it’s nothing like what I was led to believe it was. Even the paying the bills and cleaning the house parts are actually sort of great. Because every bill I pay reminds me that I’m making a living from something I love doing. Because I like my crazy little apartment; it’s my own space and I like taking care of it. Because everything is better when you know you’ve earned it.
I have a job that I didn’t even know existed when I was in high school. In theater, which most of us grew up being told was not a viable option for making a living. It’s a joyful job, shepherding art into the world, which exploits my strengths (like my love of organizing stuff) and allows me to wear whatever I want. I go to work most days in jeans, boots, and my favorite hoodie.
The number of people who have ever cared where I went to school or what my grades were=zero.
I have wonderful friends, still only a few close ones, chosen and kept for mutual affinity and respect, who I consider as good as family. I have good relationships with the people I work with. My longtime roommate and I joke about being non-sexual “domestic partners.” I even have better relationships with my parents now that they have no say over how I live my life.
It’s not that there are never bullies or unpleasant people, but I have the ability to choose not to keep them in my life for very long; I’m not locked up with them. It’s not that I don’t have problems, but I have more self-knowledge and self-trust with which to handle them. Most of the bullies of my childhood have lives I wouldn’t want, and the people who had the hardest time in school are doing the most amazing things now.
So to all kids having a hard time right now: please live to grow up. College is amazing, and adulthood is better still. There’s so much to learn and experience. There are so many people who will love you for who you really are. The real world is so much more wonderful and free than high school gives you any ability to imagine or anticipate.
And grownups, can we all vow to be better examples to the kids in our lives? To be models of something they might actually want to be, to show them the best of what life has to offer and what they can hope for? Because treating kids like they’re stupid, like their problems are trivial, like they don’t deserve fairness or consideration, only teaches them that adulthood is not something to aspire to.