What Advice Would You Give Your 17 Year Old Self?

If you had the chance to talk to yourself when you were 17, what would you say?

I had an opportunity that was as close to that as I might ever get.

Last week I was invited back to my old high school to speak at their literary festival. (Clearly, no one over there reads colourful language and questionable perspectives this blog.)

So there I was, in the school library, (the very library I used to sit in as a high school kid, annoying the shit out of the librarian), answering the very questions I would have asked.

It was kind of a Dead Poet’s Society moment for me.

This kid tentatively puts up his hand.

What do you do if you have no idea what you want to do with your life after high school?

Holy shit, you're graduating from high school in three months and you have no idea what you want to do with your life? You're totally fucked.

Okay, seriously, what should you do? Don't do anything. 

This response raised a few eyebrows, but let me explain.

I really wish someone had given me that kind of permission and freedom when I was 17. You don’t have to go leaping into something you’re not sure about just because you’re graduating from this vacuum we call high school and LIFE starts in 3…2...1…GO!

I don’t, of course, mean you should go sit in your parents’ basement for years, smoking up while watching re-runs of South Park. That should only take a week.

If you don’t have your grand plan for life sorted out when your 17, that seems normal to me. Yet, we treat kids who are in this situation like they’re total twats with no direction.

Why don’t more parents, guidance counsellors, teachers say, “Hey, it’s okay to take some time to figure shit out.” Instead, we make them take a bunch of computer quizzes on prospective careers, hand them a stack of university brochures. 

Not sure what you want to do? Go experience life.  Do some shit you’ve always thought about doing that has nothing to do with anything.

Take flying lessons. Travel to that country you read about in a magazine at the dentist’s office.  Get fluent in French at a café in France. Go on tour with your band. Where do you think would be the coolest place on earth to work? Get an entry level job or internship there. 

Or, if you go to university, take some courses that interest you, not just the ones that will get you a job.  

As life goes on and you get mired down in the muck of living, it gets harder and harder to find your passions and pursue them.

I went into the Faculty of Education after graduating because I didn’t really know what else to do. I did it because at the end of the four years, I’d be employable.

Being employable wasn’t my dream. I didn't have a dream...yet. I was too busy trying to pass Mr. Mitchell's math class.

Seven years later I was an English Department Head. Then my boss pulled me into his office one day and told me he thought I should think about becoming a principal. I was sitting in this leadership course he signed me up for, and I had this moment: holy, fuck, how did my life get so off track?

My situation was extra sticky because I actually liked teaching and I was pretty good at it. But deep down, I knew I was meant to be doing something else and there was this spark inside of me that had not yet been lit. Life is designed to keep you so busy that you don’t have time to think about that spark.

Around this time I started writing. 

Spark. Okay, more like explosives went off in my heart. This is what I am supposed to be doing.  This is what happiness feels like!

Even though it was seven years later and I was basically starting from scratch and learning how to do something completely new that I wasn’t particularly good at, (and some days I still suck), I did it anyway. I got the degree that I really wanted.

It’s unbelievable; I almost missed out on it entirely. Not writing would have been the biggest travesty of my life. Beware the post-high school expectations of well-meaning people; that can alter the course of your life in a bad way.  

So to answer that confused kid’s question:

Allow yourself the time to wander around like a twat and find out what makes you happy and then never stop chasing it.

Here is one other question that I got that I can’t resist posting. And perhaps, the reason I will never be invited back to FRC to speak.


What was your best memory from this high school?

I was on student council in high school. The only thing I remember about being on student council had absolutely nothing to do with student council.

We waited till dark and headed to the BFI bins behind the school. Dissections had taken place in the science labs that day. A BFI bin full of fetal pigs, frogs, squid, mice. Oh, the possibilities!

We loaded up the van with the remains and the fun began. We strung a pig up the flagpole, restocked the seafood department at Safeway with squid, put mice and frogs in amongst the chips at 7 Eleven. When customers pulled up to the microphone at Burger King to order a Whopper, they were greeted by a fetal pig, head resting comfortably on its forelegs, snout just above the "Place Order Here" sign.

Why did teachers list their phone numbers and home addresses in the public phone book? Teachers’ unlocked cars (it was the 90’s no one locked their cars) and mailboxes were stuffed with partially dissected animals. (To this day, I still feel bad about this.)

The fun went on for hours.

Of all the high school musicals, the basement parties, the dances, a trip to France - Dissection Night stands out as one of my most cherished high school memories.

Before I could take any more questions from students, for some reason, my presentation was promptly concluded. 


(FRC was an incredibly gracious host and it was seriously fantastic to go back to my old stomping grounds!)