As I walked home from McSherry’s, one of the only bars in my hometown where you’re guaranteed to run into at least three fellow graduates from Fairhope High School, I saw him with another girl in the parking lot. He held her low on the waist and leaned into her, pressing her against the side of a car, whispering reasons why they should both get inside of it. Her arms draped around his shoulders, relaxed and softly fluttering like ribbons on a boulder, and her lips grazed his. I hurried past them and muffled a giggle. He had already forgotten me, but I would never forget the words he spoke to me earlier that night.
“You were so smart in high school, I would have thought that you’d be rich by now,” he had said.
Our conversation hadn’t been romantic like the one he had later in the parking lot. I felt quite happy with my boyfriend, thank you very much, and this old classmate of mine – I’ll call him Jim – had access to a lot of other available young ladies who were at McSherry’s to escape the stress and boredom of coming back home for Christmas. He planned to help alleviate someone’s stress and boredom that night, and he wasn’t interested in trying to make me that someone.
But our conversation was intimate in ways Jim probably didn’t realize. He was a few years younger than I was, and we had taken drama classes together in high school. We recognized each other at the bar, hugged, and immediately dove into the standard “what have you been up to since graduation” conversation that we would repeat over and over again throughout the holidays. Maybe the memories of shared humiliation during adolescent improv sessions made me feel connected to him. Maybe the way we both marched to unusual drumbeats – he was working on an acting career and I was doing, well, I dunno what – made me see him as a kindred spirit. Or maybe I’d had too much wine in too short a time. Whatever the case, I didn’t gloss over the topics that I usually deliberately fail to mention: namely, that I’m a serial failure who had been laid off or fired multiple times (five times I write this) in the four-to-five-years that had passed since I graduated from college.
“I dunno,” I explained weakly. “I’m going keep trying, and my freelancing is going ok right now, but I can’t figure out how to find and keep a full-time job that doesn’t suck.”
Jim nodded sympathetically, having already shared some career difficulties of his own, and we sipped our drinks.
“Life is hard,” I added, and forced an awkward laugh. "Life is hard" is a phrase that I tend to toss in when I don’t know what else to say, my version of the clichéd “and then I found a twenty-dollar bill” addendum for boring stories.
And that’s when he gave me a new phrase to live alongside "life is hard," a phrase that keeps repeating in my head, simultaneously motivating and crushing me: “You were so smart in high school, I would have thought that you’d be rich by now.”
“Haha, thanks, maybe one day…” I replied, and then changed the subject to something that made me feel less selfish and depressing.
I was so smart in high school. I wasn’t a straight-A student, but I could have been, if my priorities had been different. I participated in extracurricular activities. I put in volunteer hours. I scored high on the ACT. I got a full ride to The University of Alabama with their National Merit Scholarship program. I was mostly smart in college, too. Most people would agree that I had a lot of potential.
But now I know that none of my potential matters. All that matters is whether or not I actually achieved anything with that potential. When you’re twenty-eight years old and contemplating whether or not you have the emotional energy to stand in line for an extra few hundred bucks of unemployment insurance for the third time since graduating from college, you don’t feel like you’ve done much with your potential. When you feel like any job worth having won’t take you and any job that isn’t worth having doesn’t really want you either, you don’t feel like maybe you never really had that much potential in the first place. And when you feel like you shouldn’t be honest in job interviews when they ask you, “Why did you leave your last place of employment,” you feel like any remaining potential is leaking out of you like helium from a deflating balloon. You’re sinking lower and lower, getting closer to the rough, pitiless ground, and no one and nothing is around to refill you. Once you pop, its over, and the only person to blame is yourself. You are the only one who can squander your own potential.
I was so smart in high school. I’m far from rich, monetarily. But I now possess a wealth of free time to work on myself, and I’m a billionaire in friendships. And I guess I'm just as responsible for any good that comes from that as I am to blame for any failures. You are also the only one who can maximize your own potential.
When you start drifting lower and closer to the doldrums of self-pity, when you start to wallow in your failings, you have to remind yourself what you still have. You can always alter your own course. You can always work to better yourself. You can always choose to nurture and grow your relationships. You’ve had that ability since you were born, and it doesn’t go away, no matter how many times you fail or how much potential you waste.
I was smart in high school. Maybe its not too late to figure out a way to be smart now.