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Back Talk: It gets better?

TribLocal and The Mash, the Chicago Tribune’s weekly newspaper and website for teenagers in the city and suburbs, has been checking in with area high school students to find the most pressing questions they have for members of their parents’ generation. As part of the regular Back Talk column, we’ll pose these questions to TribLocal’s parent bloggers, who are able to draw on their own experiences coming of age and raising kids.

QUESTION OF THE MONTH: The phrase “it gets better” has been heard all over the Internet, but it’s cold comfort to kids being bullied or suffering discrimination. So tell us — does it get better? Or are these the “best four years of our life,” as we so often hear?

* * *

Does it get better? Yes, it does.

As a kid, I endured teasing, most often during the bus ride after school. One boy in particular, took great delight in slinging on the insults. There was one slight blessing in the whole thing, I couldn’t hear well enough to know what they were saying about me. A lot of it went right over my head, but I was humiliated all the same. I buried myself in a book whenever the taunting would start. The teasing put a dent in my self esteem. I always thought I was a couple notches below the other kids because I didn’t have normal hearing.

High school wasn’t an easy time either. Group conversations were a nightmare. My friends wanted to hang out at night, but I found myself declining the invitations and making excuses, simply because it was impossible to lipread in the dark.

Before it became better, things actually became worse. I went from hard of hearing to deaf as a teen. But ironically, that turned out to be a blessing. After a period of grief, I learned to settle into a new world. I learned to become comfortable with the whole me.

And I learned something else: when you get into a place where you accept yourself, then you can handle the stuff that others dish out at you. How I wish I had learned that lesson as a teen. I would have spent less time trying to be someone I wasn’t, and would have spent more time letting the real me shine through. Teasers be damned.

Does it get better? Yes, it does. Many, many years later, a letter came in the mail. It was from one of my tormenters on the bus. He was reflecting on his life and was sorry about the teasing he inflicted. He had carried around guilt and shame inside of him for years. He had become a born again Christian and asked for forgiveness.

I had long ago forgiven.

* * *

No other time has as much impact on a person’s life as the four years they spend in high school. And the pressure – to get good grades, make the team, fit in, stand out, blend in and simply survive, will never be as intense.

I see my boys go through it every day. Hearing them talk, I’m transported back to my alma mater. I remember rushing through the halls, worried that I wouldn’t make it to class in time and, if I did, inevitably forget something I needed way back in my locker. The entire time, I’d avoid making eye contact with classmates who knew a dozen different ways to make me feel self-conscious.

Despite all of my rushing, time had an irritating way of feeling like it was standing completely still. On more than one occasion, it felt like high school would never end.

When I was in the thick of it, not happy with the way I looked, the clothes I wore, the minefield that was my complexion, and my pin-straight hair that, no matter how hard I tried, would never be as bouncy, curly or cute as that of every popular girl in school, I would lament to my Mom.

Her first line of defense? She’d smile and tell me that things would get better.

That was a leap of faith I was never willing to make.

Next, she’d pull out the old standby “Just be yourself. The rest will follow.” When that prompted me to wail even louder into my pillow, she’d dig deep and remind me of how proud she was of me no matter how I looked or how many friends I had. Eventually, that did the trick.

But even when I felt like all was right with my world, she never said, or led me to believe, that I was in the midst of the best years of my life. Maybe because she knew better. Or maybe because she wanted me to keep striving and growing into the person I was meant to be, learning to rise above any challenges I’d face not only then, but ever.

Man, she was good.

When I crossed the stage to accept my diploma, I felt the lid that had been on the pressure cooker of my life for the past four years blow clean off.

Whether you can’t imagine life getting any better than it is right now or you can’t wait to blaze your own trail on your terms, there is life after high school.

Like my Mom said, things will get better. You just have to keep the faith.

* * *

An open letter to every teen who has ever rolled their eyes when an adult said, “Hey, these are the best days of your life!”:

First of all, I’m sorry if that didn’t make you feel better. We weren’t trying to downplay the stress you deal with on a daily basis. We didn’t want to suggest that your real feelings didn’t matter. More than likely, we were just trying to help put a positive spin on things.

Here’s the reality – at least as seen from this dad’s eyes. Every part of life has its good parts, its not-so-good parts, and it’s awesome parts. Living life means you get the highs and lows. And as much as us parents want to protect you, bad and sad things do happen. The goal, I think, is to have more good, awesome things in your life than the crummy things. Because if you have more “good” then I think you have a terrific shot at always having parts of your life feel like “The Best Days.”

So how do you get those good days?

Actually, I think the older you get, the more you have the ability and responsibility to help bring goodness to your life. It starts with your attitude and outlook. It’s supported by having positive friends. It’s reinforced by doing things that are healthy for your body and your mind. Some of you may think this seems impossible. But I promise, the older you get – the more you will have the ability to bring good things into your life.

Even if you don’t feel that way right now.

I also know some of you have some really tough situations in your life today. Maybe it’s a bad home life. Maybe it’s a mom or dad with problems of their own. Maybe it’s issues at school. Teachers. Other kids. Maybe it’s lack of acceptance. Maybe it’s lack of tolerance. Maybe it’s worse.

You’re told that it will get better. And maybe some of you are rolling your eyes at that, too.

But the truth is, it CAN get better and it WILL get better. But you need to be part of the process. (And, yes, this is the part of my annoying dad habit where I repeat myself). But there are two things I really want you to remember:

First, you can bring goodness into your own life. Go back and read my paragraph that begins with, “Actually, I think the older you get….” Read it. Remember it. And believe it.

Second, every part of life has good things and not so good things. This will be the case when you’re 20, 36, 48 and 90. Keep working to bring more goodness in your life. The more good things in your life, the happier you will be. Every age holds elements of “The Best Days.”

So what can you do if you feel like you’re living in a dark hole right now?

For starters, you don’t deserve to feel that way. You deserve to be treated with respect. You deserve a healthy environment to grow up in. You deserve that and so much more. And you deserve an adult to help you find solutions. There are always solutions. Maybe you’ve tried to get someone to listen and they didn’t. Good for you for trying. And I’m sorry that person didn’t step up to the plate to help. Some people just aren’t good at helping. But there are individuals who will help. You just have to keep asking people you trust. Parents, grandparents, older siblings, aunts, uncles, teachers, former teachers, principals, advisors, ministers, rabbis, a kind neighbor, a youth leader – there are options for you. Maybe it’s a parent of a friend. You deserve the help of an adult.

Don’t try to fix it alone. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to fix things alone when you’re an adult.

So even if these days don’t feel so good, there are an abundance of good days waiting for you to discover, experience and savor. Go find them. Make them yours.

Because you deserve it.

* * *

Do you have a burning question for our teen writers? Maybe something you don’t want to ask your own teen? Email us at triblocaltips@tribune.com with subject line “Back Talk”!

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