Advice to My High School Self

by James Scott Bell

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there. May you enjoy it to the full.

Here is something I recently enjoyed—my 50-year high school reunion. Hoo boy! “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” (Erroneously attributed to Groucho Marx. But whoever said it probably had been to his 50-year.)

We had a graduating class of 1100, being of the Boomer generation in the San Fernando Valley. About 185 of us made the reunion. I had a grand time seeing old friends (some I’ve known since elementary school) and catching up. It was also a chance to see how some of our graduating class award winners made out.

Most Likely to Succeed, Paul, certainly has filled the bill. Yale Law School and a partner in one of the biggest firms in the world. He works out of their London office, specializing in international law.

Class Clown, Steve, is still a good friend and the most spontaneously funny guy I’ve ever known. Example: We had a Vice Principal at Taft named Mr. Gibb. Not much for small talk. One day he walked by Steve and me, said nothing, nodded, and moved on. Steve leaned over and said, “He’s got the gaft of Gibb.”

Steve has gone on to a successful career in TV comedy writing. Even more, in a fascinating turn of events, he became personal secretary to Groucho Marx near the end of the legendary comedian’s life. Steve put his account of those years into a memoir, Raised Eyebrows, which is about to become a major motion picture starring Geoffrey Rush as Groucho. (Your humble scribe makes a minor appearance in the book. I am a letter saver. Back then we actually wrote letters on paper and sent them through the mail. So when Steve asked me if I had any of his letters to me during the Groucho years, I was able to send him about a dozen, which helped him fill in some gaps.)

Sad, of course, to see the additions to the In Memoriam page. People I laughed with, went to Taco Pronto with, played basketball with.

All of which puts one in a reflective mood about this time we have on Earth. It’s good to think about that from time to time, even when you’re young. Maybe especially then.

In the movie City Slickers, 39-year-old Mitch Robbins (Billy Crystal) makes an appearance at his son’s school career day. Having just been demoted at his rather thankless job, Billy tells the class:

Value this time in your life kids, because this is the time in your life when you still have your choices, and it goes by so fast. When you’re a teenager you think you can do anything, and you do. Your twenties are a blur. Your thirties, you raise your family, you make a little money and you think to yourself, “What happened to my twenties?”

Your forties, you grow a little pot belly you grow another chin. The music starts to get too loud and one of your old girlfriends from high school becomes a grandmother. Your fifties you have a minor surgery. You’ll call it a procedure, but it’s a surgery. Your sixties you have a major surgery, the music is still loud but it doesn’t matter because you can’t hear it anyway.

Seventies, you and the wife retire to Fort Lauderdale, you start eating dinner at two in the afternoon, lunch around ten, breakfast the night before. And you spend most of your time wandering around malls looking for the ultimate in soft yogurt and muttering, “How come the kids don’t call?”, “How come the kids don’t call?” By the eighties, you’ve had a major stroke, and you end up babbling to some Jamaican nurse who your wife can’t stand but who you call Mama. Any questions?

Which makes me wonder, if I could go back in time, what would I tell my high school self? Three things.

First, don’t be disappointed. Lots of men lose their hair.

Second, take more risks. Not stupid ones. Not life-might-end ones. Just do more things that take you out of your comfort zone. Especially if it involves real estate.

Third, don’t give in when somebody tells you that you don’t have what it takes to do something. Even if that person has a Ph.D. If you want something bad enough, go for it and find out for yourself.

Now over to you. Have you been to any of your high school reunions? What would you tell your high school self?

50 thoughts on “Advice to My High School Self

  1. The advice I’d give to my high school self is that high school is the best opportunity to learn skills. For free! Regardless of how boring your classes were, take advantage of this opportunity to learn everything you can. Education is never wasted. The need for it keeps returning when you least expect it.

  2. I only went to one high school reunion a few years ago. It was fun, it was sad, it was terrifying, it was joyful. I’ve kept up with the friends I reconnected with then. A lot of them are retiring and moving back to our little beachside town.

    What I would tell my high school self:
    1. You know what you want. Go after it.
    2. Stop listening to people who haven’t done what you want to do. Listen to those who have.
    3. If you’re still breathing, it isn’t too late.

  3. I went to my 20th, 30th, and 50th. My 60th is only a couple of years away. Not sure the “committee” formed our senior year is still around, or if I’ve fallen off their list. I enjoyed seeing everyone and would probably go back again. It’s amazing what you remember. The DJ called up groups by the junior high schools that had fed to Uni, and our group remembered one of the clever songs two of my classmates were always able to create. Amazing what you can pull out of the memory banks.
    My advice to me then is probably the same as it is to me now. Patience.

    • A lot of memories came back at the reunion, Terry. One of my elementary school chums brought the class photos from those years. Amazing to me how many I remembered by look and by name.

  4. Such a heart-warming post, Jim! Thanks for sharing the memories from your high school reunion. I’ve attended one class reunion, my 30th in 2009. I’ll be attending my wife’s 40th (delayed a year by the pandemic) this August. I also attended her 30th in 2011. We met at an after school job in high school. I attended Aloha High, she Beaverton, and it was only because of that our jobs at that tiny windshield-cleaner bottling plant that we met.

    My advice to my high school self would be:

    Write a lot and discover your own process while writing a lot.
    Don’t be afraid to write stories that don’t work. We all do. This is also part of the process.
    Mom was right. Enjoy each day to the fullest, because *now* truly is all we have.

    Have a wonderful Sunday!

  5. I went to most of our every-five-year reunions. Our 50th was cancelled in 2020 because of Covid. We replanned it for last year, but no one showed up. We will probably wait until 2025 for our 55th.

    My advice for my high school self: Since this is a writing blog, I’ll recommend two books to myself that I should have read then, not after I had made so many mistakes and didn’t know how to say “no.”

    Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People
    Cloud and Townsend, Boundaries (although it wasn’t written until 1992).

    Happy Father’s Day!

    • I treasure the hardback copy of Carnegie’s classic that my grandfather gave to my dad when he was in college. Still timely. Would that young people would take some time off TikTok to read it.

  6. Good post. Interesting what old folks learn over time. Advice I’d give myself, and any others who’d listen, would be:

    1) To be a success, make someone else successful.
    2) You never fail if you’re a lifelong learner. (I’ve the scars to prove it.)
    3) When life gives you lemons, get some strawberries. They’re sweeter.

  7. I’ve not been to a high school reunion. While it would be an idle curiosity to see what people are up to now, it’s not a high enough priority to justify the traveling expense & it was the friendships formed AFTER high school that have really been the good ones for me. The only person I would really want to connect with is my High School Drama/English teacher, the most influential person from my K-12 years.

    Lots of good advice given already. I’d add:
    * Be thankful NOW for what your parents have done for you all these years because you’re about to get a real slap in the face wake up call when you find out how expensive it is just to survive on your own.
    * Contrary to your beliefs, you don’t know it all. Learn constantly. Be humble and open to correction (that is wisdom for every age).
    * Don’t let personal fears of not measuring up prevent you from pursuing things you love to do.
    *Don’t waste time and get the things on your bucket list done while you’re young and energetic enough to do them. You won’t always be able to live on 2 hours’ sleep and your body is going to get very annoying as you age. 😎

    • LOL. I had to go to college before I knew it all. That was after Freshman year. By the time I graduated, I guess I forgot most of it. Reminds me of Twain’s famous quip: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

  8. Excellent advice, Jim. Happy Father’s Day!

    I would tell her this. Look, you’re in for a rough road. It may feel like the world is crashing in on you, but you can handle it. You’re a survivor. So, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and go after that big dream. Don’t wait. Do it now.

  9. The idea of going to my high school reunions makes me cringe. It’s best I leave it alone.

    After attending a high school dedicated to the arts, I graduated with a narrow view of the world. I cannot imagine my 16 to 18-year-old self becoming who I am today. Yes, I’m still a creative person, but that’s all that remains of my teenage self.

    I ask myself all the time: How does that all arts high school experience prep me for a 30-year career in heavy industrial construction?

    • Yeah, Ben, I know not all HS experiences are positive ones. Adolescence pretty much sucks anyway. At least your creative self is intact, which means, as others have noted, it’s never too late to express it. Keep writing.

  10. I’ve been to two or three of my high school reunions over the years, but always left early. High school wasn’t a big deal for me until senior year, when I found my stride socially. For the first three years, I was invisible. In retrospect, that was probably because I made myself that way.

    My advice to my 15-year-old self:

    1. Don’t try to be part of the crowd that doesn’t want you. Hang with people who “get” you.

    2. When adults try to shape your future, don’t fight back. Just listen nicely and go on to do what you want.

    3. Go ahead and ask her. The worst she can do is say no. (And then tell all her friends, who will then laugh at you. But so what?)

    • Ah yes, John, the fear of being laughed at. That’s a biggie. Learning not to care what others think of you is a lesson I didn’t really get until I was out of college.

  11. 1. Dare to disappoint your parents. They’ll get over it and you’ll be happier.
    2. Related to 1 above, there will be no shortage of people telling you what you should do with your life. Ignore them and trust your gut.
    3. Books are written by actual, regular people, which means you can do it too.
    4. Never give up playing music for any length of time no matter how many adults tell you it’s a pointless waste of time in the “real world.” You were voted Best Musician for a reason, and you’ll be miserable if you don’t play.
    5. In a few years, a friend will mention that her boyfriend is starting a little company called Google. Buy as many shares as you can!

    • Grace, your #2 brings to mind that famous line from The Graduate: “Plastics.” That exchanged defined an entire generation.

      #5 reminds us of Forrest Gump having his money invested in “some kind of fruit company.”

  12. Great post, Jim.

    I went to one high school reunion. I think it was either the 5th or the 10th. I hated it. I only had a couple of friends in high school and they weren’t there. I was the same wallflower at the reunion that I was in high school, so I stayed a bit, then left.

    I wasn’t in the “popular” crowd in school, but I always wanted to be. If I could meet my teenage self at my locker today, I’d tell her that being “popular” in high school isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Being true to yourself gets you a lot farther in life than trying to satisfy anyone else.

    Do I think my teenage self would listen to my 60-something self? Nah! I know I wouldn’t because my dad told me the same stuff back then and I didn’t listen to him.

    Speaking of Dad, happy Fathers Day to all you TKZ dads!

  13. I wouldn’t give advice to my younger self b/c she wouldn’t listen anyway.

    But, if I wanted to waste the breath, I might have said events in youth that make you want to jump off a bridge can also twist around to become great opportunities later in life. What starts out bitter, in time, can become sweet.

  14. Good morning, Jim, and Happy Fathers Day!

    Here are a few things I’d say to my 16-year-old self:

    1. Don’t try to be somebody else’s idea of you. Find what you want to do, work hard, and take 100% responsibility.
    2. Be grateful. You have been given the great gift of life — don’t waste it.
    3. Treat other people the way you want to be treated.
    4. Read widely. Consider the great ideas, but don’t become a slave to the latest fads and opinions.
    5. Read a chapter in the Book of Proverbs every day.

  15. I’ll keep mine writing focused. I had a subscription to Writer’s Digest at age 12 and started submitting short stories at age 13. By the time I hit 16, I remember telling my older brother, “If I’m not published by 18, I’m quitting. It’s not meant to be.” Well, I did quit at 18. I just started again about 5 years ago, albeit in the new Kindle world. I’d love to smack my teenage self across the face and point out how far ahead of the game I was. Enjoy writing, I’d say. Focus on the fun and address one area at a time—dialogue in this story, pacing in the next. I can’t imagine where I’d be as a writer today, at 43, had I kept up that pace of pounding the keyboard for 30+ years straight. As they say, Youth is wasted on the Young.

    • Philip’s mention of focusing on one area at a time in your writing brings up a larger subject that I am *still* waiting for sage advice on as a middle-ager–either developing profound wisdom for myself or hearing it from someone else:

      What in the world do you do when you’re interested in so doggone many things that you can’t settle down to any of them? (and therefore your progress is slow on ALL of them!) Example: writing (fiction AND non-fiction, + more than one genre), visual art, music, keeping people mobile and fit, etc etc.

      I wrestle with that issue every bit as much now as I did a couple of decades ago. The most common advice is “suck it up, pick one & pursue it”. Logical advice, as far as it goes, but you’re still left with the “what ifs” of all those other missing interests (and the rebellious reaction to giving up a love). I will be curious to see if I come to peace with this issue as life progresses.

  16. That sounds as if you had quite a class, Jim. Thanks for sharing.

    I attended my fifty-year reunion in 2019. I came away with the certain knowledge that age is the great and ultimate equalizer.

    I would tell my high school self that 1) anything is easier to get into than to get out of, 2) every day is precious, and 3) follow your dream and not someone else’s.

    Thanks,Jim. Happy Father’s Day! Hope it’s a great one for you.

  17. I attended my 50th and was amazed (but I don’t know why) that the boy that drank and cussed the most became a Baptist preacher. As for advice, I’d tell myself to make better choices. Some of mine were doozies that I’m still paying for.

  18. I skipped said 50th reunion because I’m only still in touch with one person. Afterwards, he told me that one of the best parts was hearing people’s stories, including those of people he didn’t really know. I wish I’d thought of that. Stories matter. I enjoyed the pictures, though. I couldn’t believe how old everyone’s gotten. Then I looked in the mirror. Got it.

    My advice would be to try not to stress about things that haven’t happened yet. They might happen, but they probably won’t. Either way, stressing doesn’t help. This advice applies throughout life. I didn’t learn that until my sixties.

    My other advice is if the first boy you kiss (mine was Mr. Most Likely To Succeed, at age 12) doesn’t like you, it’s okay. There are lots of people out there who are very likely to succeed in infinite magical ways, and they’re worth waiting for.

  19. I moved away from my classmates at the end of 9th grade, but I attended all the reunions for a high school I never attended for even one day. Two takeaways were that most people thought I was with them all through school and the biggest stunner was that the people I thought WERE the In Crowd wished they were IN the IN CROWD! I told a 4th grade crush that I’d always been attracted; at the next reunion I asked if he remembered my confession and he said “Absolutely! I wasn’t sure my wife would let me come this time!” I’d tell my teenage self to have more courage and not worry about making mistakes. And I recommend people go to reunions because it might resolve some unresolved feelings and regrets.

  20. Your post is right on. But then even in high school you were usually right on. Hope you had a great Father’s Day. I am only sorry I missed you at the reunion. Guess I didn’t circulate enough. From a high school friend.

  21. I went to my 10-year reunion. I had even less in common with the others than I did in high school. I went to a small town school, and most of the others went on to be teachers, farmers, housewives, and farmer’s wives. Being still single and having greater aspirations, it became uncomfortable.

    I would tell my high school self to think for myself. It may be easy to follow what parents and doctors tell you, even if you don’t agree, but don’t do it. Make your own choices. Stand up for your own ideas and wishes. You want to become a writer – even a technical writer or communications? Do it. I made the most money as a technical writer. My best job was in communications. I could have started in it 15 years earlier if I’d listened to myself.

    Oh, and if you want to learn programming and computer science in the early 80s? Oh please do that. Don’t let your dad talk you out of a lucrative future career just because he’s paying for your school.

  22. It was great seeing you again at the reunion.

    As a shy girl, I had often tried to push myself into doing things out of my comfort zone. That’s why I ran for office (I certainly didn’t expect to end up running unopposed). That’s why I volunteered at the school’s my daughter intended and ended up starting a PTA unit, being a “drama mama” (the parents who helped support the drama program at her middle school), and accepting a request to edit the high school marching band parents’ newsletter.

    All of those set things in motion for my next act: becoming involved in a movement to shut down an unsafe gas storage facility, which meant taking many actions outside my comfort zone. That included returning to journalism, but as a advocacy journalist.

    May we all fight that urge not to take risks.

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