I hated high school and I just barely made it out alive. But I kept my chin up and I walked tall through those halls. I was a ballerina on the tippiest of my tip toes. One gust of wind too strong and any other delicate dancer would’ve been wiped clean. But I mastered the balancing act and no one saw me falter or sway in the breeze. My face now reads like a topography map of the Appalachian mountain trail. You know the kind I mean? The ones where the hills are raised and you can feel the ups and downs, and ins and outs? I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve, I pin it to my nose for everyone to see. But when you’re 17 it’s best to take all that stuff and jam it in any dark corner and crevice you can find. Like when kids are told to clean their rooms and all they do is shove it in the closet so as soon as someone turns that knob and gives the door even an inch of wiggle room, an explosion goes off and they are suddenly drowning in a pile of last week’s clothes and last year’s stuffed hippos. Teenagers are a ticking time bomb and they plaster on those smiles and hope you don’t see right through because the truth is that the word “fake” is dripping from their lips. And maybe they pray but they only do it at home because believing in anything that isn’t everything is nothing. And maybe high school wouldn’t be so difficult if one brave soul would look straight through that fake smile and say, “you’re not alone.” Because maybe everyone needs to hear that in their life. And maybe you’re 45 and not 15 and you wear that smile too because it looks nice with that blue dress you just bought. And you’re about to defend your client in a room full of men and they can’t see you break or lose your place so maybe if you use super, super glue then they’ll look at your mouth and not your eyes and they won’t see the truth inside. And to you I say, “Hey, you’re not alone either.” I’m not saying you should let them see you fall but if you can smile for real maybe you’ll exude that confidence you need to win this case. And you’re the only girl playing the game so it’s scary, I get it, but don’t let those boys make you doubt yourself for a second. And you don’t have three degrees or own fancy things, but don’t think for even a minute that you’re not worth it. And don’t let those high school “friends” treat you wrong. And don’t worry that you’re walking those halls by yourself because I said it before and I’ll say it again, you’re not alone. You just have to look in the right places.
It was the summer before my senior year of high school. We filed into the auditorium and waited our turn to be draped in black velvet and pearls, the picture that would live on in our yearbooks for centuries to come. And the room was buzzing because it didn’t matter if you didn’t look good in bow ties and barrettes, you were a senior and this was supposed to be your year. My name was called and he sat me down on one of those exceptionally uncomfortable stools and fiddled with me in that way that school photographers do: “chin down, look over here, eyes up, shoulders back, over here…over here…that’s it.” But they never sound convincing and you’re left wondering if you really look as ugly as their expression makes you feel. The corners of my mouth turned up and I was ready for him to capture my soul in that tiny black box. Until he looked at me straight on and asked me to smile less. “But this smile is all I have,” I thought. If this smile isn’t good enough then what else can I do? This is the one I’ve worn every day for the past how many years and you’re telling me it’s too big? I didn’t even know a smile could be too big. You can’t tell a 17-year-old that something is wrong with her face because she’ll break out in hives and her chest will start to tighten up and suddenly she can’t breathe. Allergic to her insecurities.
But 17-year-old-me didn’t know what today-me knows now. Today people tell me that my smile is so big and full of life. And the way the corners of my eyes crease is so distinct and unique and sort of beautiful. And the people that say those things are the ones that mean it. And the ones that mean something. And today I walk out of the house and I wear that smile because it’s the only one I know and it’s okay that it’s the only one I’ve ever known because it is perfect and it is mine. And today it’s not carefully or painstakingly painted on the lower half of my face. No. Today it is there because I am happy because I have absolutely nothing to be sad about. I am alive. And there is no better reason to smile. Today I pin my heart to my nose because above all else I believe in love and the power it has is beyond what my growing brain will ever be able to comprehend. You may call me weak because I’m not afraid to break down and cry, but I will look you dead in the eyes and tell you that you are wrong. I am strong because I am brave enough to be vulnerable. I am strong because I refuse to live the only life I have been given like a ghost floating through space. I will teach my children that there is beauty and strength in the realness of raw emotion. And I will teach them that high school may beat you down and make you feel like you will never be good enough, but that one day you will figure out who you are. And you will smile. And someone you love will tell you it’s the most beautiful smile they’ve ever seen. And they will mean it.