Senior year of high school is a busy time to be a teenager, even aside from the work you’ll put into applying to college. It’s also full of events that are specifically designed to serve as capstones for your high school experience, like prom and graduation. As you reach the end of the year, these events will come on thick and fast.
You may find that these senior events are a lot of fun and a chance to end high school on a high note. However, you might also find yourself worrying about whether you’re doing the right things to enjoy these events properly. After all, you’re supposed to remember these milestones for the rest of your life, right?
Not always. The memories you really treasure from high school may come from unexpected places, and some of the best memories won’t be formed in scheduled, traditional events. You never know which experiences will shape, inspire, or affect you in retrospect. As someone who’s been out of high school for over a decade, here’s what I’ve learned about memories, formative experiences, and the pressure to enjoy traditional graduation-related events.
There’s a Last Time for Everything
If you haven’t watched older friends or siblings experience their senior year of high school—or maybe even if you have—you might be surprised at just how unrelenting the senior year event parade really is. All those activities and accolades you’ve accumulated, which have helped to make you a competitive college applicant, will only make your schedule more packed with award ceremonies, end-of-year banquets, and other commemorative events.
Towards the end of the year, you might attend prom, senior ceremonies, or other special events with the rest of your class. Then, of course, there’s commencement itself, with special outfits to wear and proud family photos to take, and perhaps graduation parties to attend afterward.
There are also lots of “lasts” to consider—your last performance in the marching band, your last class with a favorite teacher, your last chance at qualifying for the state tournament in your varsity sport, and so on. These might be set up to include special recognition for seniors like you who will be moving on to college.
These events are enjoyable for a lot of students, just as they’re meant to be. However, that tradition of enjoyment can actually make you feel pressured to have a good time and create a memory you’ll treasure for the rest of your life. Sometimes, that’s not what actually happens.
Academic ceremonies aren’t a fun experience for everyone. (Personally, listening to graduation speeches is one of my least favorite activities on earth.) Social events like prom can be less than magical if you’re shy, introverted, or have trouble with friends, or if you simply don’t enjoy dressing up and dancing awkwardly with your entire high school class.
And what if something unexpected interrupts your plans? What if you come down with mono and spend your last weeks of senior year stuck in bed? You might feel like your life—or at least your opportunity to create the treasured memories of high school you’re seeking—is absolutely ruined.
Fortunately, even if unforeseen circumstances intervene to prevent you from participating in the traditional slate of senior events, it’s really, truly not the end of the world. These events can be fun and make you feel like your hard work has been appreciated, or they can be less than enjoyable, but either way, they’re only a very small portion of your overall high school experience.
You’ll have (and you’ve already had) innumerable opportunities to make amazing memories every single day, and these more quotidian memories matter too. In fact, you might very well find that the experiences that stick with you most or become most important to you spring from unexpected sources, not from the events that are intended to produce lasting memories.
The Limitations of Foresight
I’ve been out of high school for a while now, and in my experience, it’s impossible to tell at the time what events and feelings will linger in your memory. You never really know which experiences will change and shape you as you become an adult. However, I’ve noticed a few trends of high school experiences that have turned into treasured memories or windows into who I am.
When I think back on my high school experiences, the things that I still remember clearly and that I know affected me deeply are definitely not the events where I felt pressured to make lasting memories. I barely recall those events; they exist only as stressful blurs in my recollection. Instead, I remember most vividly the experiences that seemed ordinary at the time, but were most closely linked to the people and ideas that made me who I am today.
I remember the hilarious video we made in my tenth grade Spanish class, featuring a painting from our school’s hallway coming to life and terrorizing the (remarkably game) assistant principal. I remember the road trip my dad and I took to visit colleges, one of the first times I ever left my home state, and the way it expanded my world and made a whole new range of possible futures suddenly seem real.
I remember first loves and late-night phone calls, making mischief with my siblings, and diving deep into academic and extracurricular projects that I really cared about. I remember sneaking up on my favorite teacher to surprise her with the news that I’d been accepted to my dream college. I remember momentous arguments with my parents on issues that, long afterward, they thanked me for challenging their positions on. These are the things that have stuck with me.
For some of these experiences, it’s taken me years to see how truly special they were. For others, their ordinariness is exactly the point. The most formative influences of my childhood built up bit by bit, day by day; they didn’t touch my life in one magical moment.
Most of all, I remember events, places, and people that are me-specific. Those are the things that best reflect my life, my circumstances, and what matters (or mattered) most to me. I don’t remember the events that were based on someone else’s idea of what high school students could do; I remember what is and was most personally important to me as a unique person.
Making Memories That Matter to You
So what happens next? What can I do during high school, you might ask, to make sure that I built up a stock of experiences and memories that will really matter to me later in my life?
Well, to some extent, there’s nothing you can do to be sure. There’s no one right way to spend your high school years, and there’s no way to make absolutely certain that you have a perfect experience that’s full of magical memories. Life tends to resist our attempts to make it fit a certain pattern or schedule.
Besides, your college years will be a time of immense change; you’ll be learning new things every day, in the classroom and outside of it. You never know exactly who you’ll be on the other end of that experience, and it’s hard to say what memories Future You will consider especially important. Besides, this process of growth can be, by definition, stressful and challenging.
One piece of advice I would give is to stay open to whatever experiences come your way. Do silly things with your friends. Have long, impromptu conversations. Turn right where you would usually turn left, and see where it takes you. You can plan and schedule all you like, but some of your best memories will come from coincidences and chance meetings.
Allow yourself to fully experience the moment you’re living in, whatever that involves, rather than worrying about whether it meets some arbitrary standard for “good” high school memories. FOMO, or fear of missing out, is very real and can hurt your ability to enjoy the moment. If you spend all your time worrying that you’re not doing what a high school senior is “supposed” to do, all you’ll have to remember will be that experience of worry.
When it comes to choosing how to spend your time during your senior year, be true to yourself. If you’re absolutely sure that the traditional senior year activities that are popular where you live will be more boring or stressful for you than enjoyable or meaningful, don’t feel bad about opting out of some of them.
Some events, like your graduation ceremony itself, may be unavoidable, and your parents will inevitably get a say—this is a big moment for them as well. However, you don’t have to do everything to celebrate or commemorate your senior year.
One of the greatest things about growing older is that you get more of a say in deciding which traditions or practices are truly meaningful for you. You don’t have to do things just because they’re popular or socially expected. Even when you do observe long-standing traditions, you’re free to put your own spin on them.
If you’re feeling stressed about the pressure to do and enjoy things that just aren’t for you, don’t force it. Focus instead on the things that really make you happy and the kinds of memories that you want to make. Though it might seem paradoxical, the best way to build up great memories is to stop worrying so much about doing the correct things to build up great memories, and instead, to fully appreciate whatever comes your way—especially the unexpected.
I, for one, prefer to look back fondly on the unrehearsed, unscheduled, and personally significant things I did in high school. Those memories may not represent anyone else’s idea of a perfect high school experience, but those are also the moments, places, and people that truly made me who I am today. For that, I’m grateful.
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