looking back

notes to my third grade self

I wish you could watch yourself grow up. Not like watching home videos, where the camera’s shallow lens catches the moment but not the child. Not like a parent watches a kid grow up, either, where (I suspect) it’s all long days of life being life and short moments of reflection on how he’s changed and how she’s grown at recitals, birthdays and graduations. Maybe more like a close aunt, where you see the kid once or twice a year, take them out for lunch, hear about what’s happening in their life, see the ways they’ve grown up since last time. Or a time traveler, popping in along the timeline. Hey, kid. Nice to see you again. Yeah, seventh grade is a doozy, huh?

I can’t remember myself at two or four or five, and my memories of elementary school are moments and feelings, not stories or events. Even for middle school—even for high school—it’s hard to see myself one year beside another and see what changed. The things that I struggled to decide, or struggled with, or strove for: These larger things are easier to see when I look at my selves all in a row. Easier to see how they play out, though I still cannot see the shifts where they happen.

Fifth-grade Abby, look at seventh-grade Abby, she’s stopped wearing jeans that are stained through at the knees, you should start doing that. Third grade—you’re gonna properly figure out that homesickness is a thing for you soon, and it’s going to suck, and it’s going to get way worse before it gets better, but don’t worry, you’ll go to college 700 miles away from home and be just fine. Tenth-grade Abby, you know the people that are drinking aren’t doing anything wrong, but you and I both wish you could stop feeling panicky and uncomfortable when you hear about it. Don’t worry, you will, slowly, and eventually very much so, and that’s okay and good. Sixth grade, yes, join the band, yes, pick the saxophone, stick with it through high school and somehow and sometime, twelfth-grade Abby will realize that she’s twice as confident and has found her voice besides.

So I can trace those, the plot points, the big deals, even if I can’t see all of what happened or all of the spaces in between, where the getting-worse and getting-better and slowly-you-will happened. The ones I could maybe see if I had that time machine, if I could pop in on some arbitrary day and just take myself out to lunch to talk. Tell me about today, Abby, tell me about this week. I want to hear about your friends and your classes and your thoughts and your fears and line them all up against my own. All I really know about you is that I’m older now. I want to see how.

I can’t take myself out for lunch, but over winter break, I have coffee with two of my middle school teachers. I’m rereading that series I first read at recess, I tell my social studies teacher. I found that certificate when I was cleaning my room, the class superlative that said “most likely to be a historian,” remember how I scoffed, did I tell you I’m a social science major now? She and my science teacher toss each other references to current students, current classes, ask if this old friend is still a goofball and if that one ended up being pre-med. I’ve looked basically the same since I was two, but I looked the most different in middle school, with a growth-spurt-thin face, hair in a messy ponytail, half-frame metal glasses. I imagine that face superimposed over mine. How much of those two faces do they see when they look at me?

How different will both of those faces look from mine at thirty?

Abby of last spring, you’re nineteen and you somehow think you’re as grown up mentally as you’ll ever be, just with the mechanics of adulthood left to learn. Listen to me closely, because while you know this to be true you also aren’t sure you’ll ever understand it enough to remember: That is colossally dumb. Because in small, subtle shifts you’ve become someone different than who you were in middle school, and you know it didn’t happen in changes you can see, so why should you expect to see the ways you’re changing now?

I catch myself saying “I’m an adult” and “I am a child” often (the former mostly indignantly, the latter mostly facetiously), but those proportions will shift until one isn’t true and the other too obvious to say. I don’t know how I’m getting there, as I don’t know how I got here, and I can’t figure either out; but I can look at the row of my past selves and know there are more ahead.

I’ve seen something going around the internet, something along the lines of “be the person you needed when you were younger.” Maybe I’m getting the meaning wrong, but I’m not sure that younger me would’ve listened to me, or that she even would have really been able to wrap her mind around becoming me. I don’t know who younger Abby needed, but regardless, she’s grown—she’s growing—into someone that I think older Abby will be proud of. Someone I will be able to set down alongside the others and say, yeah, kid, you’ve come far, you’ll come farther. You’re doing just fine. You’re doing just fine.