Saturday, May 20, 2017
"Goodbye, Natalie ... You sure have changed a lot."
A few months ago, these words were sent to me over Facebook messenger after an exchange during a political debate on my wall.
They were issued to me by someone who knew me in high school (and I use the word 'knew' very loosely) and whom I had seen precisely twice in the nearly thirteen years that have passed since I was 17.
They were issued as an insult, as a negative, as though I should be ashamed at not being like the 17-year-old I once was. I don't know about you, dear reader, but with passive aggressive Xanga posts full of over-dramatic bullshit, 17 personally wasn't necessarily the best look for me.
Beyond that, of course I have. It's been thirteen years since you knew me--and you didn't even really know me back then, anyway. We were in the same social circle, but when did I ever talk to you about anything of any import? When did I share my fears with you? My hopes? My dreams? I didn't. You knew a bright, bubbly girl who felt shy more often than not.
You knew a girl who would rather bend over backwards, twist herself into an awkward cookie cutter shape to avoid ruffling anyone's feathers. You knew a girl who most would call "nice," who would not try out for a good part in the school play because she knew it was the part her close friend wanted to play. Who felt bad when she got a part in the school play that someone else wanted, who thought she didn't get a place on the Mock Trial team because she wasn't one of the pretty girls.
I loved so much of my high school experience--I hated a lot of it, too, but so much of it was filled with laughter and joy and a great feeling of acceptance which I know is not always the norm for those in high school. I'm thankful for that, and the people who made it so (and even if it's been years, you all know who you are).
But I wouldn't go back to being that seventeen year old girl if somebody paid me. The fact that someone thought he could use 'You've sure changed from when I knew you when you were a teenager' as an insult really speaks volumes.
What followed was a messenger exchange where I explained exactly that--where I explained that yes, I have, and I'm not ashamed of that, and besides you never really knew me, anyway. What followed is not important.
What is important is that I'm miles away from that girl I was back then--and I'm not worse for it. In fact, I resent the notion that I am. I'm better for it. I'm better for having an opinion and a voice and for using both of those things. I'm better for not bending either of those things to the will of someone else or to the idea that I think someone else wants me to behave in a certain way. I'm better for being able to stand up for myself, for being able to say 'you're wrong,' and 'I disagree.' And while I still may not be able to do any of those things every time, I do them enough that I am unrecognizable as the girl who never did them at all. And that is progress.
I am better for not allowing someone to repeat a fact I know is false because I am afraid they won't like me if I correct them--I am not worse for it, old 'friend,' and there was a time you could have convinced me otherwise. Where the threat of your unfriending would have bothered me, where I would have bent myself into an impossible shape to keep you from leaving, even if I didn't really feel attached to you in the first place.
I am not the person I was back then, and thank any god for that.
I fully expect that in thirteen years I'll be able to say the same thing about the person I am now--I fully expect that I'll be an unrecognizable version of myself; I expect I'll grow in ways I never even knew I could. And if anyone tries to use this change as an insult, I'll know the truth.
I hope the same thing for you, even after all of it. I hope you find yourself becoming your own person in ways that you'd never even dreamed of. I hope you never begrudge someone any change that is good for them, even if you don't agree with it, even if it bothers you, even if it does not reconcile with the version of that person you thought you knew.
"Never change," "Stay Sweet," "Stay Cool," - these are platitudes we wrote in each other's yearbooks if we didn't know what else to say (we also said KIT, but how much did we mean that, and would we have written it at all if Facebook had existed?). But they're not healthy wishes--they are not good things to wish on someone. "Become the person you need to be when you need to be it," is what we should say. "I won't begrudge you for it when your sweetness turns sour because too many people have taken advantage of you," is what we should mean. "If it hurts too much to stay cool, become grounded instead, root yourself in love and family and friends if the pressure is too much," is what we should write.
One of the greatest things we can hope for in this life is personal growth, and I will not apologize for it--not anymore, not to anyone, and certainly not to an acquaintance from high school. I will not apologize for being someone you don't recognize, some conglomeration of variations of the word 'nice.' Sometimes, I'm not anymore. And that's okay.
Because your goodbye means nothing to me--the only thing that matters is what I say to myself:
"Hello, Natalie... You sure have changed."