In my high school journals, I often wrote about where I wanted to be when I grew up. Looking back on these entries with the distance of a decade, and the knowledge of what I’ve pursued in life, I am in awe that my essential self is still the same. It’s comforting, but it’s also empowering. It means that the person I became at 17 is still the person I am proud to be – just with more experience and more tools for how to accomplish the things I used to dream about from inside the decorated, forest green (my favorite color, then and now) walls of my high school bedroom.
From my high school journal: “When I think about ‘what I want to do’ when I graduate, I think of these things: I want to be the most approachable English teacher at an independent high school for unconventional young people, and I want to have a cabin on a lake with bookshelves everywhere filled with books, and I want to wake up every morning and find the passages I underlined in all my favorite books and remember what it felt like to be that age and read those words for the first time.”
Today, I live beside a river in a cottage full of books. I teach English at an independent high school for pretty cool young people (that’s you guys), and every morning, I wake up and flip through the passages I underlined ten years ago in my favorite books. I think about what it felt like to be 17 and reading those words for the first time.
In college, I learned about the concepts of Place and Space. Place was a physical location, while Space was an ambiance that could be evoked in a building or room. In a Place, one performed their public persona; in a Space, one could be their most private, interior self.
This reminded me of my high school bedroom – that place where I had engaged in journaling, daydreaming, painting, drawing, writing, singing, dancing – activities and rituals that gave the place a certain ambiance; that made it into a space.
I am writing these words in my office, the front room in my cottage. My desk faces the yard; the trees; the mountain. This is the room in which I design curriculum for the courses I teach through Oak Meadow; chat with students; communicate with my faculty peers; read submissions for my poetry journal; write these blog posts, and a hundred other outward-facing things.
On the ceiling of my office is a drop-down ladder that leads to a secret loft; intimate, with slanted walls. I can stand upright in the center, but otherwise have to crawl. Pillows and cushions line the floor. One wall is a balcony, overlooking the living room below. Against the railing are my bookshelves. Photographs of places I’ve lived and the people I’ve known line the slanted walls. On the exterior wall is a tiny square window looking out to the mountain and the yard, just above where I sit at my desk in my office below. Up here, I am curled into a nest; I am closer to the mountain; I have my books and mementos and journals scattered around me. Below, the office is light, bright, and open, inviting all the work I do that connects to the outside world. Above, I enter the interior space of my mind – the space where I dream up creative projects and muse over the big questions of life and the world, my beliefs, my values, and who I feel myself to be.
The place of my office and the space of my loft are both necessary for the work that I do as a teacher and a writer. But I have to wonder if I would have ever discovered that these were the best places and spaces for me if I hadn’t dreamed about them in high school.
High school is not only the time when you begin to state your goals and ambitions – it is also a crucial time to dream. It is the most important time in your life to ask essential questions about who you are, what you believe, and what kind of path you see yourself pursuing in life.
By “path,” I don’t just mean career. Careers are your public persona – your exterior self. You will accomplish great things in the public places of your careers – I’m sure of it. But if you allow yourself the space of interior dreaming, musing, and questioning, then you will also become a person you’ll be proud to be – someone who lives by the virtues you believe in.
You can’t know where you will be ten, fifteen, twenty years from now. If you did, that would take away half the fun of the discovery. But what you can do is think about the kind of place you want to be in; where you can be productive by offering your skills and knowledge to your community.
And you can think about the space you want to have around you: what kind of weather and landscape make you feel grounded and at home? Do you want trees and mountains around you, or skyscrapers? Do you want to live on the road, in a tiny house, an apartment building in a big city, or a rambling old country house on a farm? If you ask yourself these questions now, you’ll find out what kind of person you are, and the kind of person you’ll be down the road, when the dust has settled, and the air has cleared, and you open your eyes: what do you see?