I remember my graduation party only vaguely; in fact, the only things I recall vividly are the white sundress I wore under my gown, and the amazingly large check my grandparents gave me. I'm sure there were cards and cake, but I didn't spend a whole lot of time with either; I had places to go and people to see, and I couldn't wait to get on to the rest of my life.
Ah, the rest of my life. I had it planned perfectly. I knew exactly what I wanted to do and when I wanted to do it. Like the graduates I've seen the past few weekends, I was sure I knew the best for myself. I knew whom I'd marry; I knew I'd write for Rolling Stone, penning pithy-but-thought-provoking biographical sketches of Elton John and Boston and Foreigner and the Cars. Maybe someday, after I was settled, I'd have a baby.
Boy, I thought to myself on that May evening in 1981. Boy, was I going to have a life.
Thirty years later, I can confirm that boy, I've had a life. But how many things I was certain about in 1981 have come to fruition? Approximately zero, give or take a few.
Here's a list of the things I thought would happen--followed by the events that actually took place.
Dream: I was sure I'd write for Rolling Stone. Reality: I work in communications for a large financial-services company. I write for the Des Moines Register. I tweet and blog. What happened? After I graduated from college, I realized moving far from home was not for me. I had a fair number of job offers, and they were all in Iowa. I fell in love with one of the opportunities, and I stayed put.
Dream: I was sure I'd marry one of two boys, both of whom I'd known for a long time. Each of them would be staying in Des Moines while I went off to college, but I was sure absence would make the heart grow fonder. I thought I knew which one I wanted, and I thought all I'd have to do, when I was ready, would be say "jump" and he'd say, "how high." Reality: I went away to school for two years, then transferred home to finish at Drake. During those two years, the boy I truly thought I'd end up with had found someone else, and I discovered I just didn't like the other one anymore. What happened? Different experiences make you want--or think you want--different things. People change. Graduates: With very few exceptions, the person you're kissing tonight won't be the one you marry.
Dream: I'd have a baby or two, starting at about age 30, after I'd established my career. Reality: I had one baby at 25, just as I was getting my career off the ground, and the next at 28. My career was placed on hold for a few years. What happened? I fell in love, married, and wanted to start the proverbial "next phase of my life." Having the kids represents the best detour my life ever took.
So, what do I wish I could go back and tell my 17-year-old self? First, I'd tell her to grow her hair out. Then I'd say: Grab hold of your life and hang on. There will be times you'll be driving, other times you'll be looking out the window, and other times you'll be watching in the rear-view mirror ... and all those are OK. Have a rough plan, but don't adhere too closely to it.
I'd say: That boy you're kissing right now? Chances are you won't be waking up next to him in 30 years, but he'll always have a place in your heart. As you grow older, memories assume a more honored place in your life because there are simply more of them.
Finally, I'd tell her: Enjoy your cake, open your envelopes, count your money and write your thank-you notes. Then look out the window. See your future? No? Oh, well--no matter. It's out there, ready to grab you when you least expect it.