I was a high school drop out.
I started grade 9 full tilt, with my rose coloured glasses on. Excited, ambitious, and eager I was. Made friends, did the sleepover thing, and started dating a boy. Life at home became increasingly tumultuous and I found that my academics started reflecting that. By grade 10 I was making poorer choices – with my social life and at school. I started skipping classes, and began spending more time with friends. Eventually I stopped going to school altogether. I longed for acceptance. I looked to create a “family” within my group of misfits.
The next few years were a blur. A cloudy haze of all-nighters, house parties, raves and rock concerts.
I eventually grew tired of the lifestyle, and frankly I think my dad grew even more tired of it. One summer day he swooped in, grabbed me and my suitcase, and took me off to his home in Newmarket. I was enrolled back in High School, and off I went.
I was making excellent grades – actually, I was a honour roll student with marks in the 90s. I took a Peer Tutoring class, and this was something that really sparked something deep inside me. We were paired up with the “at risk” students – kids who were very much like me back when I started school. My teacher coupled me with a young lady who she described as “a real challenge” – but she winked and said she knew I could handle it.
Her name was Jamie. Her hair was long, dark and pin straight. It hung over her face like a blanket. She was a grade 9 student from Baltimore. Her father had passed away, and she was left to be raised by her mother and older brother. I could tell she was opposed to any sort of authority, and refused to make eye contact with me, let alone speak to me. I tried to make casual conversation with her, just about life in general; nothing even related to school. She finally opened up to me on the second day, talking about how her mother constantly brought home an endless cycle of men, most of which she never knew their name. My heart ached for her. She was so tough on the outside, and so broken on the inside.
We worked on reading a novel; a novel that she chose from a reading list. We read it out loud together, with me taking the lead initially. I would read to her in funny voices, and I would exaggerate with theatrical faces and hand gestures. One day a smile broke through, the tiniest of smirks. I knew from then on that she was warming up to me.
One of my assignments in the Peer Tutoring course was to write an essay about my experience working with Jamie. I titled it “Validation” – and now in my adult life I think about how so very true my words were. I spoke about how Jamie, like the rest of us need validation. For someone’s eyes to light up when we walk into a room. For someone to acknowledge us, to think about us and our needs. Jamie got so mixed up her her mother’s mess of simply just trying to survive, that Jamie got pushed aside. No one to ask how her day was, or how she was feeling. She needed validation.
We all do.
We all need someone to make us their focus; their priority.
I remember my dad being glued to his blackberry in my teens, hardly even looking up when I spoke. He was busy with “work” and I felt like it trumped anything I ever had to say. Now, as a parent, I conciously try to put my phone down when my kids talk to me. I would never want them to feel the way that I did. Like I wasn’t as important as a phone. I let my eyes light up when they walk in the room. I give them big hugs and tell them how much I missed them. You don’t have to give them all the things they want, but you do need to give them your undivided attention and time.
People want to feel heard; to feel loved. Jamie wasn’t acting out because she was a shit kid – she was looking for genuine attention and she didn’t know how to command it.
As adults, we need this in our relationships. Time, undivided attention, and to be made a priority. We want our daily stories about work to be heard, even if they are boring. We want eye contact, and acknowledgment – not a silent nod from behind a phone screen. We want feedback and appreciation. And we most certainly want eyes to light up when we walk into a room.
It’s never too late to start giving our relationships (be it with our kids, our partner, or our friends) what they need. That’s the beauty about validation: it can come at any point and make someone’s life drastically change course. It’s a gift you can give and it almost always has a positive impact.
I often think about Jamie and where she is in life. If she has kids, if she’s married. And I hope I made an impact on her life.
Because she certainly had an impact on mine.