Senior Year of High School: The Flip Side Of Struggle
I took my daughter to the last appointment of her pre-school-year doctors’ gauntlet; we always try to get all check-ups and dental cleanings and eye checks and whatnot out of the way before school resumes. This particular day, just a few before the start of school, the nurse who came to take her vitals was very chatty.
“Do you have siblings?” She allowed as to how she has a brother. “Are you the oldest or youngest?” She’s the oldest.
Then came the real question: “What year are you in school now?”
“I’m a senior, ma’am,” my daughter replied, keeping her tone pleasant and polite, even though I know the question irks her by now.
“Ohhhhhh Mom!” the nurse responded with a laugh, and an exaggerated swivel towards me. “Better get the Kleenex ready! You’re going to be crying all year!”
We all chuckled. The nurse went on about how hard the last year is, how it feels like you can’t ever let them go, and my daughter and I exchanged a few glances and nodded along until she finished up and left us alone in the exam room. I didn’t say anything, not then. I waited until after we saw the doctor and we were headed home, alone, in the car.
“I’m not going to cry this year, you know,” I said to her. “I mean, I may cry some, because that’s just how I am. But I’m not sad. Not even a little. This isn’t a sad year for us. This is the best year ever! You are the best you ever. You made it! I am going to celebrate through this year while everyone else is busy crying. They’re all busy worrying about losing their babies and for the first time in what feels like forever I’m not worried about losing you. Every milestone feels like pure victory to me. Does it feel that way to you?”
My daughter likes to accuse me of “making with the many words.” (What can I say? Occupational hazard!) She listened, and nodded at the appropriate points, but when I got to the question, she shrugged. “I… guess?” she said. How very teenaged of her. How typical. How normal. It made me laugh.
“Exactly!” I crowed. She rolled her eyes, which only made me happier.
It’s not that I don’t understand how senior year can feel fraught, particularly for those families where everything has been calm and predictable for years. I get it (at least in theory). But four years ago, we took first day of school pictures on the front steps and I thought we were looking at just another year. By the time school ended that spring, though, my daughter—as we’d known her, anyway—had disappeared. She’d become sick, distant, angry, and eventually retreated so far into herself I wondered if we’d ever bring her back out into the daylight. Three years ago, my son stood outside for his annual first day picture without his sister, because she was hospitalized. Two years ago, she was back, and we were cautiously optimistic, only to find that there was still a loooong way to go before we found our new normal. One year ago, they posed on the steps that first day of school, and I remember feeling… tired. So, so tired. I cried a lot, the first half of last year, I’m not going to lie. I cried in the shower in the morning and in bed late at night and usually a few times in-between. Sometimes I would lock myself in the bathroom with my phone and dial my bestie and whisper anguish between tears. “I can’t see anything different. Help me. Help me hang on to the hope that it gets better because if it doesn’t I don’t know how to keep going.” She promised me it would get better. I tried to believe her. Eventually, I did. And then… it really did get better.
This year, the kids fooled around on the steps—poking each other, giggling, my son looming over my daughter, my daughter trying to make herself taller than him (that ship has sailed)—and my husband mused out loud that this would be the last set of “first day” pictures with both of them together. Maybe it should’ve made me sad, but it didn’t. Not even a little. I watched my daughter walk through fire for years. Every day like this, every smile, every eye-roll, they’re all gifts I worried we’d never get. She’s starting her senior year strong and happy, and while so many of my fellow senior-year parents will be weeping “my baby!” or “I can’t believe they’re leaving,” I’ll be over here cheering, “You did it!” and “Fly, baby bird!” (Oh yeah, I get extra eye-rolls when I call her baby bird, which only makes me do it more.) I don’t expect this year to be free of glitches or drama, but I do expect that she’ll meet those challenges and handle them, because that’s what she does, now.
Am I going to miss her terribly when she leaves for college next year? Of course. It’s tempting to be disappointed that we’ll be sending her off just when she’s become so much fun to be around, again. But I can’t go down that road. I won’t. She’s a marvel, my girl, and while I will hang on every update and treasure every visit, all I ever wanted was for her to find her own way in this world. There’s no bitter, only sweet.
This year is going to be one big victory lap. So yeah, I’ll cry. But I’m not sad. I’m proud. I’m grateful. I’m amazed by her. I’m humbled by her resilience and excited to see what comes next. Senior year may feel full of lasts for other parents, but for us, it’s also full of firsts. This is her year, and the time that led up to it made her the incredible young woman she now is… plus it helped me to craft a pretty rad pair of pom-poms to wave for her.