To Be Recognized

I’m going to be honest: I often forget that I’m a high schooler.

From the beginning of my time as a high school student, I never felt like I fit in. I felt awkward, incomplete, and completely devoid of any sense of direction or sense of who I was and wanted to be. I didn’t have a niche or a passion, and as a result, I was a wanderer who hung in the background, neither here nor there. It’s likely that this feeling of not belonging contributed to the struggles of my freshman year, where my eating disorder, anxiety, and depression reached their peak and I really hit what I would consider to be the rock bottom of my life. In fact, I would identify this as the greatest reason I began and continued to struggle during my first year as a high schooler.

I was always a good student. Academics were a constant in my life that I clung to as my one sense of purpose and identity: I was the smart one, the studious one, the straight-As one. If nothing else, I had good grades, and my teachers and peers all viewed me as a well-mannered, intelligent kid. But as my self-confidence plummeted, even this view of myself wavered in my own eyes. I was filled with doubt; was I really smart? What if I was just good at getting work done? What if I’m not ready for college, the future, life? My grades never changed, but somehow I managed to feel remarkably inadequate as I trudged through my freshman year, getting deeper and deeper into the thickness of my disorder.

I didn’t really have friends at this time. No one particularly disliked me, but no one particularly liked me, either- likely because I didn’t make myself known to anyone. I held myself inside, isolating myself from social gatherings and school activities. I dropped out of swim, overwhelmed by the anxieties that came with an increasingly competitive sport, and stopped making an effort to see people outside of school. I didn’t have a community, and I didn’t have a deep connection with anyone. I began shoving people out and keeping them there, instead finding solace in my bountiful alone time, where I drew, wrote, and painted my emotions out of my heart and onto paper, where they felt much less heavy on my soul.

When I was hospitalized, it was a wake up call.

Not only was I forced to face my desperate state medically and physically, but I was forced to face the fact that my life was moving in a direction I never intended it to. I had spent the first half remarkably stagnant, floating from hobby to hobby, sport to sport, identity to identity, never creating a reality that felt comfortable enough to call my own. And then over the course of a year or so, I had suddenly started moving backwards, and here I sat, at the bottom of an abyss, realizing I had no footholds to make my way back up the walls that seemed a mile high around me.

I realized, and I vividly remember having this realization, that I had two options: to allow my story to end here, or to make this just this beginning.

If there’s one thing that has always been true about me, it’s that I’m the most stubborn person you will ever meet. The moment that I made up my mind that this dark place, this sterile hospital, this sad chapter, would only be my first page, I was on a mission to create a new life for myself. For the first time ever, I felt absolutely certain about something: I was going to change my reality.

Looking back, I’m amazed at how resilient I was. I ate every meal they put in front of me, I refused to play a part in the trickery other girls in the ward played to manipulate their weight and their vitals, I forced myself to sit with my discomfort and regain my physical health so that I could leave the hospital and begin working on my mind. I spent months at home, barely allowed to leave the house because walking was too great of a strain on my body, reading everything I could find on mindset and body-acceptance and mental health.

It wasn’t that I suddenly had an epiphany that I loved myself and loved my body and loved who I was. No, it wasn’t that at all. It was that I made the decision that I would be that person who found acceptance for who they were, and radiated confidence, and lived a life of positivity and gratitude. If I wasn’t already that person, I was going to act like that person until it became a new habit, a new routine.

I was going to fake it until I became it.

And when I found yoga, I found the final piece to the puzzle. It wasn’t the asana or the breath or even the words my teachers spoke that did it, though. It was the pure experience of finding something that filled me up. Something that made me feel like a had a direction, a path, something that made me want to keep moving forward. Something that assured me that I had a reason to be working as hard I had to get better.

It changed the way I presented myself to the world to go through this journey. Sitting in that hospital bed, looking at the sick reality I had created, I realized that my life was clay in my hands: just as easily as I could make it spiral downwards, I could use my energy to send it upwards. Instead of sitting around wishing I was confident and happy and positive, I decided to live that way.

And so it is.

I began talking to people. I began walking with my shoulders back and my chin lifted instead of curling in and hiding myself in the shadows. I began spending time outside, embracing the new wonders of the world, instead of locking myself alone in my solitude of things I already knew. I began creating things that didn’t linger on the same story I had been telling my whole life, but instead focusing on how I could generate and foster change and evolution in my life and others’. Teacher training played a remarkable role in this. I learned that what I had to say could be of benefit to others. I learned that I could be a leader. I learned that I had something to share, not something to hide.

Being able to call myself a teacher is the greatest honor of my life. I’ll never forget one of the first times I was practice teaching in training, and was practically whispering my cues. My teacher took me by the hand and walked me away from my practice students, so they wouldn’t be able to hear my whispers, and made me yell as loud as I could what I wanted to say. I started to find my voice in that moment, and realized that I could evolve and grow all I wanted, but if I didn’t share myself with others, it was all for naught. It was then that I felt comfortable sharing my real, authentic self with the world- when I first felt worthy of attention, friendship, and connection.

Going through all of this makes it easy to forget that you’re still in high school.

I started a club my sophomore year that centered around the organization Challenge Day, which leads workshops for schools that encourages kids to talk and be open about their struggles and what it’s like to walk in their shoes. I was so inspired by the workshop they lead at my school that I decided to begin the Be the Change club, and before I knew it, I was standing in front of a room of 20 to sometimes 50 students who looked to me for guidance. It was my job to create a safe space to share, to encourage conversation, to listen to what they had to say, to share my own experiences and lessons. I was forced to teach.

The first meeting I led a lesson and discussion on hiding our struggles from view and the mental health repercussions that result from trying to deal with them on our own. I dove right in, speaking from my heart, trying to radiate confidence, and it felt right. It felt like for the first time, I was showing my peers who I really was and wanted to be. People came up to me saying things like, “I’ve never heard you speak like that before. It’s like you were an entirely different person.”

Because I was.

By the time I completed teacher training, I was a junior. I still, even with the club and the community it built, didn’t feel like I belonged at school. I didn’t feel like I had a place, and I still sometimes felt like I was only known as an academic. But I found solace in my new home in the yoga world, devoting all of my spare time to my practice, my teaching, and my beloved studio. I had found my new self, but I was so used to feeling out of place at high school that I still felt somewhat isolated from my peers. I worried that my interest in yoga and self-exploration was driving a wedge between myself and others my age, who had different interests and hobbies.

I worried that I was just too different to have “a high school experience.”

Senior year rolled around. The year began, and at first it all felt the same. I was more confident, sure. I felt like I had found my passion and my happiness, sure. But I still wondered if I would ever feel at home at school. And then, and I will never forget this time as long as I live, Homecoming Week rolled around. I was sitting in math class, listening to the names of all the popular, happy, beloved people being nominated for homecoming court over the loudspeaker, when suddenly I heard my name.

Now let me say, I know this sounds ridiculous and arbitrary and somewhat pretentious, but this completely changed my views on school and whether or not I “belonged” there. But being nominated for Homecoming Queen was the last thing I ever expected to happen. I still felt unnoticed in the world of high school, and yet here I was, a part of the most high school thing ever: Homecoming. I hadn’t voted for myself, or asked others to vote for me, or even had it on my radar…and that’s what made it such a special epiphany.

People had thought of me.

People knew who I was.

People cared about me.

I spent the next week doing things I had never thought I’d get the chance to do in high school: wearing a ridiculous sash in the halls that said “Homecoming Princess”, standing on a parade float, playing in the games in the rally.  For the first time I wasn’t just “in high school”, I was a high schooler.

It changed my year. It woke me up to the fact that I could be myself at school, too. I could feel at home here, too. I didn’t have to feel like an outsider any more.

I embraced the year. I smiled. I laughed. I taught and practiced and wrote and did all the things that were important to me, but I felt comfortable sharing them with my peers now. I felt like others welcomed me for who I was. I saw that the changes I had made to myself were apparent from the outside to those around me, and it felt so good to see that maybe, just maybe, they liked me for the person I had become.

And then the end of senior year came, and I got invited to Senior Awards. I really wasn’t expecting to win anything- in fact, I had never won an award in high school. I figured I was  getting, if anything, something related to academics. That was still the biggest identity I thought I had in relation to school.

My high school doesn’t have a valedictorian. They have four altairs: Scholarship (academics), Service, Leadership, and then the Grand Altair, a combination of all four awards. They’re the biggest honors of the night awarded to four seniors of the graduating class every year, and has been done so for the past fifty years of my school’s existence.

Two hours into the ceremony, as they neared the end, they began to award the altairs. A brilliant student won Scholarship, then a remarkable community service student won Service, then the student body president won Leadership. It wasn’t a surprise to anyone: these were the kind of students that won these kinds of things, the ones everyone knew around campus, the ones teachers loved and students loved to be around.

When they began giving the speech for the Grand Altair, I wondered who it might be. I had a few names in my head, people I thought would get the award, but not for a single second did I think I might have even been considered for the honor. As the speech progressed, though, I suddenly realized they were telling my story. They were describing my journey. They even used my words that I had written about how I had grown and how my life had changed.

I realized they were talking about me, and I started to cry.

Because it suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks that I was loved in this community. I was in high school, and I belonged there. Other people were glad I was there. Other people saw who I was, saw the person I strove to be.

I was recognized.

There is something so incredibly special about feeling that way, about realizing that what you’ve done and the effort you’ve put into making a change has been noticed. I flashed back to that girl freshman year, who hid herself from the world. I flashed back to that girl in the hospital, who saw two paths in front of her and chose to make the leap. I flashed to the times I felt out of place and alone and unnoticed. I saw, for the first time, the person I was today standing next to the person I used to be, and saw that I had truly changed.

I wasn’t faking it anymore, this is who I was.

My peers stood and clapped for me. My teachers that had changed my life hugged me. I held a trophy that seemed comically large and couldn’t force the grin on my face to leave. It was so incredibly surreal and so incredibly surprising that I could hardly process the moment.

I belonged.

I told everyone how shocked I was, how I wasn’t expecting it at all, how I couldn’t believe this had happened. And, surprisingly, people laughed and told me they weren’t surprised at all. People told me they knew who was getting the award when the speech began. People told me they were happy I had gotten the award, that I had deserved it.

That’s what meant the most, hearing that my peers, my class, my friends, thought I deserved to be recognized.

I was in high school. I wasn’t just enrolled, I was there. I found the courage to reveal who I was. I found the voice that made me unique and made me a force of my own. I found a way to carve out the reality that made me me. 

I’m going to be honest: I often forget that I’m a high schooler.

But now, as the year ends, and I prepare to collect my diploma and leave this chapter of my life behind, I’m realizing I was there all along. I was present. I was noticed. I was loved.

To be recognized is a beautiful thing.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. You are such a beautiful person Maris – inside and out. Don’t ever stop sharing your light with the world!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. marisdegener says:

      Thank you so much. ❤

      Like

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