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What I really learned in school

Here’s a look at the things we learn when we don’t even know we’re learning them.

Earlier this spring, I started doing the math on how long it had been since my freshman year of college. Turns out, it’s been 25 years since I headed to the University of Illinois. Then it hit me: That means it’s also been 25 years since I graduated from high school.

(Nothing gets past me. See also, journalist math.)

I’ve never minded getting older — I’ll take all the buckets of wisdom and experience, thank you very much. But it is fascinating how time slips by. The days are long and the years are short and all of that, and suddenly my toddlers are teenagers. And I’ve been out of high school for 25 actual years.

Conversations today center on my kids’ school, on dual credit classes, and friends, and teachers, and FFA and good choices. On what classes to take and what really matters.

And at the end of the day, 25 years later, I’m still kind of hopeful we can change the world. And so, with that, a few things I learned in school that I didn’t know would be a big deal until … 25 years down the road:

1. Everyone struggles. And no one really knows what they’re doing. Even the people who look like they have it together, who seem utterly confident, have their own thing they’re struggling with. Don’t believe that yours will crush you. You’re not alone, and you can do it.

2. Life is a group project. I’m sorry. It’s true. I used to loathe the group project. My goal in college was to just do it myself. Get it done and move on, because group projects are dumb. Turns out, life is a group project. There will always be people who don’t agree with you or who don’t pull their weight. Delegate, build consensus, get the job done. Your farm, family and community will be better for it.

3. Always finish what you start. Start well. Finish well. Be known for it.

4.You will use algebra. I hear people say they never use algebra in real life, and I don’t know what kind of life they’re living. Sure, I don’t rely daily on the Pythagorean Theorem, but I solve for X pretty regularly. Learn it now, because you’ll use it later.

5. Do good work. Work hard. Learn your craft. Don’t worry about awards or accolades or fame. It may take years, but good work always gets recognized, and you’ll be known for it. 

6. Make the table bigger. School’s hard. Friends can be tough. Look for someone who needs a friend. Pull up a chair. Invite them over. Your “group” isn’t the most important thing in life. Loving other people is.

7. There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t really matter. I remember an intense debate in college about colors for a blanket favor at 4-H House. Girls waged passionate arguments about whether blue letters would show up on green fleece. Finally, one of my favorite people stood up and said (and I paraphrase), “Blue on green, green on blue, who the heck cares?!” If it won’t matter in five years, don’t spend more than five minutes worrying about it.

8. People who shine from within don’t need the spotlight. Don’t be afraid to toil away quietly, and remember what matters: loving people and loving God. What doesn’t matter: likes and retweets and snaps. Fame and infamy are two different beasts.

9. Look for the good. Life can be really hard. Unbelievably difficult stuff will happen to you. It will, and I’m sorry in advance. But if you look for the good in a terrible situation, you will find it. It’s the friend who calls when you’re hanging on by your last ragged fingernail, the neighbor with a casserole when you’re too sad to cook, the glimmer of hope from a God who loves you. It’s always there. Make yourself look for it.

10. Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future. I was lucky to have great friends in high school. We were a bunch of farm girls who can still talk nonstop like it’s our job. It’s easy to work your way into the wrong crowd, but here’s what I know: Your experience will be defined by the friends you choose — high school, college, life.

11. Essay questions always count. They do. Always. Especially on a college application.

12. Until you ask, the answer is always no. Say you want a job or an internship or a promotion. What’s the worst that can happen? Someone tells you “no”? If you don’t ask, you’ve already got that.

13. Do hard things. If it scares you a little and you think you can’t do it, it probably means you should. (Unless it’s illegal. Don’t do it then.) It’s OK to feel uncomfortable and ill-equipped. That’s life. See also No. 1. None of us really know what we’re doing.

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