10 life lessons I learned in high school

Sunday, March 16, 2008

I was recently asked to give a talk to first-year high school students in an all-male school. My initial reaction was to say “no” since I could not readily imagine how someone like myself who is three or four generations older than my audience can possibly give advice to today’s youth. It’s been something like 34 years since I was a high school freshman and that’s eons ago to the contemporary youth. How can I address people who look at people my age as ancient and whose attention span is probably much shorter than mine when I was their age? Besides, what could I possibly say that would be interesting to them?

But I knew I was just being difficult. I have made it a habit to consciously catch myself when I am just being negative; when I do, I counter it. So I ended up saying  “yes” to the invitation. My strategy was to cull from my own experience when I was their age. I would start by reminiscing about my own early years at the Ateneo High School, an all-male enclave like Claret High School.

I noticed two things while I was walking things through in my head: a) how amazing it was that I could still remember a lot of what I went through during my formative years. I can still remember the sights and smells, and most of all, the pain and joy of discovery in the journey to becoming a man. And b) how much like a parent I sounded to myself as I thought about what I wanted to say.

That Thursday morning, I entered a gymnasium with about 400 kids and a few teachers who showed up for my talk. After the intros I tried establishing contact with the audience. I stated the fact that a lot of kids their age find themselves in a state of limbo since they are becoming less and less the children they used to be, but are not yet quite the adults they aspire to become. To be sure, it’s an awkward stage to be in. Add to that all the major, definitive changes in one’s physique that are constantly happening. Changing hormonal levels can make one easily depressed, angry, horny, excitable, moody and sensitive all at once.

When I knew I had their attention, I proceeded to give them 10 pieces of advice which actually worked for me when I was growing up. Some I learned firsthand while some I learned from my own folks.

1) Remember that you are now capable of actions and decisions that can have life-long repercussions. I remember having classmates who died while in high school all because of recklessness — riding a motorcycle, getting into a fistfight, or even accidentally getting shot by a best friend who brought a gun to a class night sleepover.

2) Learn to play a musical instrument, a craft or an art. It is important to get intensely interested in something. It was learning the guitar that gave me a “parallel language” which I used to deal with and express my angst-ridden inner emotions. Without the guitar, I could have become an emotional recluse or a wreck. All that teenage funk must be channeled to something that will help you get in touch with your own emotional life.

3) Choose a mentor. It is extremely helpful that a young kid can get close to an adult who not only can be a role model for responsible behavior but who can also give much-needed advice in many matters. There’s nothing like an older person who can be around when you need him. It is also empowering to meet a mentor who believes in you. I was lucky to have had people like Ed Garcia and Onofre Pagsanhan during my high school years. They were mentors who cared about what I thought and felt, and saw the goodness in me when I could not see anything redeeming in myself.

4) Learn to control your urges. Like I said, raging hormones can get you thinking of nothing else but sex for long periods of time. Sex, like all things wonderful, must be entered into with full consciousness and attention and great control. You either control it or it controls you. Not controlling other emotional states like anger, moodiness and sensitiveness may also lead to many unwanted consequences.

The same goes with the urge to be violent, or the need to prove oneself by taking drugs, committing             petty crimes to gain acceptance, and surrendering to undesirable peer pressure. To be in control assures survival. To not be in control can result in becoming a victim.

5) Cultivate some kind of spiritual life. I remember being in high school and noticing that my classmates were either quite religious, or were totally disinterested in any kind of spirituality. Overall, I think that my having developed a conscience (largely through my mother’s influence) and the whole Ateneo mantra about being “a man for others” have shaped me to be the person that I am today. And while I have outgrown many of my religious beliefs as a young man, I still consider myself quite spiritual and I am happy and comfortable with that.

6) Remember that many of your high school classmates will be your friends for life. Anyone who has been at least 20 years out of high school will confirm this. High school years are golden years you will always look back to with fond and bittersweet memories. On a more practical level, the eminent Dr. Tony Dans, during the graduation rites at the Ateneo high school last year, pointed out that your old classmates will be the people you will run to when you need doctors, lawyers, architects, priests, etc., when you’re grown up. You will end up staying with them when you visit abroad, or even become their business partners, and so it is always good to treat them well.

7) Get close to your parents, or at least do not alienate them from your life. Remember that your parents went through essentially the same thing you are going through now, although under different circumstances. While the dynamic of wanting to assert independence on your end and their wanting to have parental control over you may seem irreconcilable at times, with a little patience on both sides, you can arrive at some sort of age-appropriate working accommodation.

8) Get into a sport. Though I now see its importance, this was something I barely indulged in while in school. I was too much of a klutz and too self-conscious about my own awkwardness to play any sport. I couldn’t even get coordinated enough to dribble a ball while running, much less shoot. But I joined the school band and thus participated in many interscholastic “tribal” sports competitions. It’s important to get into some sort of team spirit and effort, to work at goals that are bigger than oneself and that require group effort.

9) Learn about the opposite sex not just by having girlfriends but also by observing your own sisters and mother. The worst sex education one can get is the one you learn exclusively from your male classmates. When you can look at the opposite sex and understand them without your testosterone getting in the way, then you will have become not just a wise male but a desirable one and a potentially good boyfriend and partner.

10) Teach yourself discipline and study habits. It does matter that you have read a few books and can write coherently by the time you get to college. It does matter that you have the discipline to concentrate and do homework and tasks. As someone who taught in college, I find that I am more partial to students who have a wider literary reference when they speak or write essays than those who hardly read.

Furthermore, the readers in class submitted better papers because they could explain themselves more intelligently. Students who are habitually casual about what they are required to do never quite make          the grade when it counts. I was somewhere between a good student and crammer in high school depending on the subject. In the subjects that I used to cram and study only the night before the tests, I never really got good grades. Stephen Covey was right when he said that you can’t plant a tree and expect it to bear fruit overnight.

My talk was followed by a spirited Q and A which brought back more memories of my own adolescent years. The questions ranged from why their parents were “unreasonable,” or why kids in school are too cliquish, to why their parents do not give them freedom and privacy. The more questions they asked, the more I realized that minus the iPods, the cellphones, the gadgets and the media-saturated upbringing they are exposed to, today’s kids will have to go through what kids of every generation have gone through. And they will always need the guidance and care of the adults in their lives.