Words by Taylor Reinhart. Illustration by Alyssa Etoile
One of the first lessons I learned teaching high school is that the students are better than me. They are funnier, more insightful, more curious, and infinitely more connected to the present than me. They wear their uniform with the perfect amount of swagger while I’m in the same, dumb tie every day because I always forget my other one at home. My apathy is one of a sad 23-year-old, eating takeout five days in a row while watching Mad Men, while theirs is the kind that brand marketers are paid millions of dollars a year to decode. Plus, some of them have hoverboards.
I find this added insight to be true of love, as well. I’ve watched them dance in and out of relationships, free fall through Facebook dramas, and say “I love you” for the first time. Mostly, I’m watching excited atoms bounce back and forth off of one another, but the moments of brilliance are staggering. One student coming off of a tough breakup once told me at a school dance, “The whole point of a break-up is to rebuild yourself.” Who better than a high school student to remind you that the responsibility of getting better falls on you?
As I am not in the business of convincing teenagers to dwell on breakups any more than some already do, I decided to instead ask an established couple in the school I teach–let’s call them D.J. (the girlfriend) and B.H. (the boyfriend)–for an interview. Both kids are standouts in their own way: D.J. is a junior who excels in the classroom. B.H. charms his way through the day with his roguish persona. As I, too, once had a high school relationship that lasted for five years, I sat down with D.J. to talk through the confusion and cautious optimism of first love.
D.J. is one of the brightest, most vocal students in the grade. Not a fan of raising her hand, she will shout “REINHART!” then wait until I walk over and give her writing feedback. Once engaged, she will grumble that my feedback makes no sense and is helpful to no one, sometimes extending those complaints to the class itself when my back is turned. I respect that: she does not play games, and works hard. You just find yourself rooting for a kid who is both unfiltered and set on her goals. She brought those same traits into our conversation, below.
TAYLOR REINHART: How long have you been in this relationship?
D.J.: Three years and a month.
How did you celebrate three years?
Well, we weren’t in the same state. He was in North Carolina and I was in New York, but when we came back, we had a gift exchange. He got me a necklace. I made him a collage and got him…I don’t know, some game.
Oh, what game?
Yeah…I don’t care much for games.
Okay, I get it, you’re a cool girlfriend. To start off, what is the hardest thing about being in a relationship while in high school?
The hardest thing is probably the growing up part. You’re both growing up at the same time. Your personalities are changing, your interests are changing, so you have to be flexible. And, everyone around you is immature.
Do you feel like you’re more mature than everyone around you?
[Laughs] Would you consider your significant other mature?
…In certain situations.
I remember that, I remember balancing the idea that we were goofy kids with doing the long-term thing. I was in a five-year relationship and we did the whole thing. We went to college together, and broke up at the end of my sophomore year. We also did a three-month break literally 10 days after we got there.
But didn’t you think that y’all were going to work out? That’s where we’re at now, figuring out where we are, which college we’re going to go to. If we’re going to continue…I’m looking into journalism and media, which is big at Syracuse. He was thinking about going to a smaller school about 60 minutes from me. We think that’s ideal, but he doesn’t want me to choose school based on our relationship. If it has to be far, it’s okay. And now I’m confused, do we want to be together? Do we not?
Do you want him to ask you to go to the same college straight up?
Yes. I wouldn’t mind going to the same college. I would definitely be able to keep my eyes on him–all the time.
Do you have to keep your eyes on him? You can’t keep your eyes on him forever.
It’s about trust; I’m trying to trust him more. But, it’s so easy now. We’re in the same school, we’re in the same classes, I know where he is all the time.
What about family, teachers? Are they worried about you making decisions for the wrong reasons?
I don’t think they’re worried, but they’re a little confused. Everyone thinks B.H. and I are opposites, but we’re the same personality [wise]. They go off his academics, but he’s the same person as me. We just have different habits.
Teachers and parents see the GPA and they make snap judgments based on that.
I wish I could give you some clarity on the school thing. I’m a cautionary tale, breaking up 10 days into the school year.
That’s crazy, but I don’t know what to do if we don’t go to the same school. When we talk about it, we end up not talking about it, you know?
How do you navigate that uncertainty and maintain your consistency? It must be constant.
Well, B.H. always tells me that what’s meant to be is going to be. I just tell myself we’re going to keep going, [and] we’re going to figure it out. He says we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I don’t know how, but whenever we approach an obstacle, it always works out.
What do you mean “works out?” Do things just happen or do you consciously choose each other?
I think we make conscious decisions. We both make decisions to compromise. But love is definitely a “meant to be” thing. If you’re choosing it, then you’re forcing it.
That’s true, but three years is a long time. There are times when you aren’t sure about that, when you have to keep making that choice.
I do find that hard, because no one around you knows…like everyone has a two or three-month relationship so it’s hard to connect with people. I don’t get tired of him. We’ve been together for a long time, but I never question it.
My high school relationship was hot and cold. We’d be 20-year-olds bickering like 15-year-olds. I remember, after the break-up, looking in a mirror and thinking, Man, I still see myself as 15. I spent the next two years trying to get years back. We got into cycles and wasted each other’s time.
But did you think it was wasting time then or after? You know when you looked all good and happy and people would say, “Oh you look great,” but they didn’t know you had just gotten over an argument? Did you realize it was not good before she moved on?
In the moment, I would have said, “I want to be free to do what I want to do,” but then we broke up and I texted her too much. [Laughs] I think we were dependent on each other and we hated that because we wanted to be more independent. We’re friends now. We weren’t for years, but one of the things we learned was to stop blaming each other for that dependence. I don’t regret it, but I also don’t regret that it’s over. Are people telling you that you aren’t going to make it?
Not everybody is supportive. No one comes up to you and says, “Y’all aren’t going to work out,” but they give you those hints like, “Are you sure you don’t want to try something else? Be with somebody else?”
I’m sure all of your friends have advice for you.
Oh they do. Never take advice from single friends!
What advice do you have? What have you learned about love?
It’s not all peaches and cream all the time. Arguments can get intense. All relationships go through problems, real relationships get through problems. I always say that. I believe it…do you believe it?
My answer to her was crappy, long-winded, and inconclusive. When our mic was off, D.J. asked a question she had withheld to that point: “Do you think things would have been different if you hadn’t gone to the same college?” My honest answer was, “No.” Luckily for my partner and I, our relationship was not one to beat the odds. D.J. could do it, but I think the end result is irrelevant. Loving someone while so young is victory in itself: you have chosen to test fate and time for one another! You choose to hold tight to clichés and stories as amulets, just to be together now! Who cares if they make it? They’ve already made it.
What they can’t yet know, what I wish I could show them before life becomes even more confusing, is that each precious memory comes as a result of that one choice, made over many days. I would show them that pain always proves to be worth the attempt. Ten years from now, this experience will be the foundation of their individual capability to love. Together or apart, I hope they always remember to send some of that love back to where it first sprouted.