MIssy Emler

A Letter to My Son (on his first day of high school)

It’s back to school season! Maybe you’ve just finished hustling to get your children to bed on time? Maybe you’re thinking about starting that routine as soon as you finish reading this? Regardless, if you are anything like me you are looking forward to the first day of school, and life returning to the familiar structure and routine. Raise your hand if you are looking forward to lower grocery bills and cleaner houses!

This year, my oldest is a freshman. It feels crazy, and there is so much I want to tell him. However, he’s a typically developing teenage boy, and I doubt he’d sit with me long enough to say what I wanted to say, so I wrote it down instead. I saw a note I wrote to him when he was the star student in first or second grade tucked away in his dresser, so I took that as a sign, he likes notes from me. After you read it, I’d love to know what three stories you’d tell your children.

Dear Cooper on your first day of high school,

I know you’ve heard me say a million times, “I can’t believe I have a freshman!” It’s so surreal to me. I vividly remember my first day of high school. It was my first day in a new school district with all new classmates and teachers. I even know what outfit I wore. Turns out I was WAY overdressed, but I survived. That was the first of many conundrums I survived. I’m sure you’ll have your fair share of embarrassing moments, slip ups, and mishaps too.

I don’t remember a lot about my time in high school, but as you are about to enter your first year, I have three stories that are worth sharing. I’ve titled each one to help you remember the important lesson of each. I can’t help it; it’s the teacher in me; I can find a moral in every story.

Story 1: Intentionally Spread Joy

I didn’t recognize this at the time, but for most of high school, I was grieving the loss of Grandma Jen. My grieving wasn’t obvious to me or others. I didn’t cry all the time or anything…actually quite the opposite. I tried to spread as much joy as possible because so many close to me were so sad. One distinct memory I have is walking through the halls one spring day with smelly sunshine stickers. I’d place a sticker on everyone I saw, and I’d say, “Have a happy day!” Yep, it’s true; I was just as annoyingly positive then as I am now. Some people (mostly boys) rolled their eyes at me just like you do, but I remember seeing those stickers everywhere in between classes, and not even the boys threw them in the garbage.

While I highly doubt that you’ll ever be a sticker sharing kind of guy, I do hope you find your own way to experience joy and intentionally spread it even when life gets in the way, and life will get in the way.

Story 2: Be Courageous

It was a Monday morning, and the entire student body was convened in the auditorium to celebrate the forensics team on their success at the state competition. I was standing up front to be recognized for having earned a gold medal. Some would say public speaking is courageous, but speaking on stage is not what makes you courageous. What makes you courageous is speaking up and saying what needs to be said when it needs to be said. My favorite author, Brene Brown, calls that “speaking truth to bullshit”.

You see, after the adult finished praising the forensics team for their accomplishments, the person continued to speak into the microphone and call out a group of boys in the back for their “weekend troublemaking”. Those boys were lectured in front of the entire student body for enough time that I started to feel sick. I remember one of the guys getting up, kicking the door, and walking out. What started as a celebration ended in awkward silence.

Later that day, I somehow found the courage to speak truth to bullshit. I didn’t call the adult out in front of others, but I did call the person into a conversation. I asked the adult to apologize to that group of boys. I shared how uncomfortable the situation was, how unwarranted the lecture was at that time, and asked if anything had been gained. Those boys were my friends, and it was obvious they had been hurt. It wasn’t easy approaching the adult about the incident, but I remember feeling like I had to say something…or I would be the next person to be humiliated in front of the entire student body. I don’t know if an apology was granted or if it would have mattered to my friends, but years later during my graduate work, that adult told me, my courage on that day had a lasting impact.

You will experience many moments of bullshit. High School is full of them I promise. Instead of calling people out for their actions, build your courage through calling people into a conversation. Share your perspective and listen to theirs. This is a skill that can be practiced and mastered in the hallways, in the classroom, on the athletic field and…in our home.

Story 3: Do B- Work

Wait! What?!? Do B-work? Yes. Do B- work. And, if I can add to that… do B- work on work that matters.

You see, I graduated from high school with a 2.99 grade point average, and I got a 19 on my ACT. What does that say about me? Nothing. I got into college despite an adult at school trying to reroute me to a technical college pathway despite knowing my career plans all required an undergraduate degree. I thrived in college, and I graduated with a 3.64 grade point average. What does that say about me? Nothing. And your grade point average and test scores will say nothing about you too.

What I’ve come to understand is that meeting someone else’s success criteria often produces unnecessary stress and anxiety. In figuring out what success means to you, I want you to be free to take risks. I want you to be free to do big things. And if that means giving you permission to do B- work and define your own success criteria, that is what I will do. You have permission to do B- work.

The tech world claims to live in perpetual beta. That basically means they do B- work always. They figure out how to get something “done enough” to get to market, then they iterate and improve or the product dies. It’s okay if the product dies because it makes room and time for something else, something better. Things created in perpetual beta change lives. It is created from the best of what you know all while longing to learn more to make it better. The dichotomy is amazing. I want that for you. I want you to embrace perpetual beta and strive to do B- work. As long as you do B- work, you will be learning, and that is your number one job. Be a learner.

May the first day of your freshman year be the start of great things for you.

Have fun and learn.



4 thoughts on “A Letter to My Son (on his first day of high school)”

  1. What I remember about Melissa Reichling is that she could make everyone SMILE and if you needed to know where someone had homeroom she knew where every student was😘🥰

  2. As the mom of a senior young man, it was such a relief to read your piece. “Do B- work”. Why are we always pushing for more when that just creates anxiety and stress to our entire family for a long school year! I just wish I read this when he was a freshman. Still have a sophomore I can help! Thank you! 😇

  3. What a wonderful perspective. Definitely can appreciate the pressure that just hearing this message can take off parents including myself who think their kids need to be the best. Great to hear from a teacher that grades don’t determine who they are or can become! Keep spreading joy!

  4. Meghan Bosonetta

    This hit me hard!!!

    What I’ve come to understand is that meeting someone else’s success criteria often produces unnecessary stress and anxiety

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get inspiring and thought provoking conversations, tools, and resources delivered to your inbox each week.

Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.

Julie Stephenson

Julie is one of the founders of Compounding Courage, a company that provides personal growth and leadership development programs. CLICK HERE to learn more.