Homecoming: Facing Your Past While Embarking on Your Future

By Maria Pianelli

Unhappy young woman

Is it just me, or is Mercury in a permanent state of retrograde?

When I graduated high school and watched my peers move into dorms across the country, disgustingly overconfident about their futures, I thought to myself — this is it, I’ll never see these people again.

It seemed permanent enough. This one had an internship down south, that one was convinced she was moving to Spain… but here I am, four years later, trying to avoid my Chem lab partner  on the Staten Island Railroad.

To some extent, it makes sense. I grew up in Staten Island, a ferry ride away from almost any career opportunity you can think of. Rather than blowing thousands on Manhattan rent, many of us opted to settle back at home to count our pennies and plan our next steps. I get it, but it also means braving ex-best friends in the ferry terminal, making eye contact with folks I went to kindergarten with and swiping through middle school crushes on Tinder.

I’m 22 with a career, self-confidence and a boatload of life experience but in those moments, everything dissolves. The hands of time spiral back and suddenly, I’m 12 years old again. And I ask myself, how do you move forward when the past keeps finding ways to creep back into your life?

Deep BreathWhenever I encounter someone from my past, let it be at a coffee shop downtown or at a friend’s house party, my mind switches to panic mode. No matter how smart, how successful, how attractive I think I’ve become, I automatically jump back to the last time I saw Joe Schmo and the context of that interaction. In that moment, it feels like the past and present are converging and I’m forced to come to terms with how much I have — and haven’t — changed.

After a few of these encounters, the shock began to wear off and instead of having a panic attack, I began analyzing the situation. Mary Sue doesn’t look horrified to see me — in fact, she’s smiling! The good kind of smiling! And hey, John Doe’s tapping his fingers — he’s nervous, too! Interactions are never one-sided, so whatever anxiety you’re feeling is probably mutual. Odds are, that classmate is haunted by their own graduation photo as they extend an awkward hug. Before you pray for a black hole to open beneath you, take a deep breath, shake off the past and try to focus on the present. A lot’s changed in six years and, provided you didn’t drop a piano on the person last time you saw them, things won’t be that bad.

Let Go Of Grudges. Okay, maybe you didn’t drop a piano, but maybe there’s some baggage between you and the Ghost of Puberty Past. And let’s face it, at 15, baggage could mean anything from we used to hook up to we sat at different lunch tables. But unless the situation was severe, time has a funny way of blurring the details. It doesn’t matter that one of you was on the debate team and the other was in glee club — or that you quarreled over a boy neither of you is with. With every encounter comes a blank slate. No longer bound to social cliques, former classmates have a fresh perspective on life. The things that held importance in 2008 are barely a memory; it’s high school orientation all over again — no judgement, negligible consequence.

There’s something surreal about seeing someone from your past and just being able to talk. Not stumbling over words, not worrying about who’s listening, just… being. With juvenile biases lifted, it’s surprising how much you have in common. The more I’m exposed to people from different places — the mountains, the country, a distant city — the more I come to appreciate the things that made my Staten Island childhood unique. Maybe you and Joe Schmo didn’t have the same friends, but I bet you both remember how unreasonable your Calculus teacher was, or how the scene kids used to take over the mall on a Friday night. You’ll find you both have the same disdain for Jersey Shore stereotypes and spent weekends sprawled on the beach, lighting bonfires with your friends. When you start to see how big the world really is, you come to appreciate those who shared similar childhood experiences. In doing so, ninth grade grudges disappear.

Embrace Who You Were. I used to look at pictures of my 12-year-old self and cringe, remembering how geeky, how insecure, how desperate I was to be well-liked. When I went off to college, I assumed I left all those unsavory qualities behind, morphing into a better, stronger person. After moving home and settling back in my old stomping grounds, however, I realized the person I was still lives somewhere deep inside me.

Sure, I don’t dress in emo band t-shirts anymore and I’m not (as) afraid to voice my opinion, but I boast the same determination and imagination I did ten years ago. I still love my friends and family fiercely. I’m still looking for ways to improve myself. Hell, to some extent, I still have the same taste in art and music.

Last month, I ran into an old high school classmate on the ferry and we talked the duration of the ride about the turns our lives had taken in the last five years. Both of us were into music and more-or-less dressed the part and he commented that I “still have that edge,” referencing my fistful of rings, black nail polish and shaggy red hair. I laughed, but I realized he was right.

The truth is, though you’ve shaken off your awkward stage, scored a great career and surpassed your classmates’ expectations, you can never fully escape the person you once were — and that’s okay.

Your past and present aren’t as distinct as you think. Be proud of your experiences and how they shaped your perspective and own any eccentricities that gave you anxiety in the past.

The big change between 16 and 22 is confidence — sometimes that makes all the difference.

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