Taylor Batten

What a 35-year-old photo taught me about myself

When you’re in 7th grade, each day provides a fresh start, an opportunity to do new things and to create a little mischief.
When you’re in 7th grade, each day provides a fresh start, an opportunity to do new things and to create a little mischief. Photo courtesy of Catherine Menendez

When I first saw the photo, I just gave it a chuckle and a shake of the head. It was fun to see a picture of myself from seventh grade, one I’d never seen before. Then it got me to thinking.

An old friend had posted it on Facebook. She had found some 35-year-old photos as she was packing up things in her house. She first posted one of a couple of other old friends. I commented on it, and she responded by posting one of me.

In it, I’m sitting in class, holding some unidentifiable item in my hand, head slightly cocked, a smile on my face and a small gleam in my eye. I look like I’m thinking of doing something the teacher won’t like.

Like I said, fun to see, and I moved on.

But it kept popping back into my mind, and I stopped long enough to figure out why. A revelation gave me a pit in my stomach.

It was the gap between what I saw in that photo and what I see in the mirror. For that seventh-grade kid, every day was an adventure, a fresh opportunity to experience new things and encounter new people. That 12-year-old was always learning from those around him, not knowing any better than to be open to others’ perspectives. He was optimistic. He wasn’t afraid to take a chance, and was too naïve to doubt himself very often. He assumed the best, not the worst, about people and institutions. He had a joie de vivre that led him to create a little mischief now and then, in good fun.

The 47-year-old he became? Not so much.

Somewhere along the way, the world stamped out much of that youthful outlook. It’s harder to have a sense of unopened wonder each day when you’ve seen so much water flow under the bridge. It’s harder to assume the best in people when you’ve seen what they are capable of. Why take an eager interest in what others think or say when you’ve heard it all before? You learn that it can be hazardous to stand out, to take risks, to be different. Self-doubt creeps in because you’ve learned, painfully, that you’re not always right. Mischief? That’ll just get you in trouble.

So was I hopelessly naïve then and a wiser realist now? Or was I healthily unscarred then and hopelessly cynical now?

Probably somewhere in between. It was inevitable that my rose-colored glasses would fade, and probably required for survival. After all, the halcyon days of youth were that way partly because I wasn’t paying enough attention back then. It’s not like the world didn’t have problems in 1981. The economy was in a recession, Americans were held hostage in Iran. Heck, baseball players even went on strike (which did catch my attention at the time).

But most of us could stand to recapture a little of that youthful perspective and exuberance about life. Adulthood is filled with challenges, and it’s easy to fall into a been-there-done-that aloofness. That’s especially true in America these days.

How much more rewarding and productive to see life, despite it all, through the eyes of a seventh-grader, full of hope, eager to learn, naively confident of one’s place in the world.

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