I wasn't one of those teens who throw big "Sweet 16" birthday parties. In fact, on my 16th birthday last year I'm pretty sure all I did was go out to dinner with my family. I'm 100 percent sure I didn't mark the date by going out with friends. I, after all, didn't really have any close friends within a 100-mile radius as a result of being the new girl in a city I didn't want to live in. Even so, with my birthday this week, I find myself looking back on this past year with satisfaction.
Sixteen was probably the worst year of my life. It was also the best.
Sixteen was hard. Before then, I grew up in one little town my entire life, and I thought I had everything mapped out. I'd stay in the IB program, hang out with my best friends, graduate side-by-side with them, and head off to college after 18 long years of home. Only I soon found myself in an unfamiliar city, trying not to get lost in a big school and trying to ignore the painful fact that I didn't know anybody. Even the IB thing didn't work out in the end -- the closest IB school was too full to take choice students, and I was a street away from being within its attendance zone. None of this was in my plans. I know there are a lot of kids who deal with moving every year and do it just fine, but to the girl who grew up in a small town her whole life and judged direction by the mountains surrounding the valley, the move was a shock. I had, literally and figuratively, lost all sense of direction. And when 16 came shortly after the move, my loneliness hit harder. What happened to weekend sleepovers, to having people to enjoy a movie and frozen yogurt with, to just simply having your friends next to you? I always knew I'd leave home one day when senior year ended, but one day came three years early with little warning, giving me no time to find the closure I needed. I used to pride myself on being able to adjust quickly to new circumstances, but this was the first time I'd ever faced such a jarring change, and it took me a while to settle my legs under me. While I was trying to adjust, I was also doing my best to keep up in the hardest year of school I've ever had.
Sixteen got better, as all things are bound to do when you do your best to make it so. I like to do that with any less-than-perfect situation: find the light, and, failing that, create the light myself. I still had breakdowns here and there, but it was better. I learned to accept the present as it was, and that was the biggest step forward. I also got to see my best friend every now and then, which was a plus. The school thing wasn't so bad, either, as I ended up in a really fantastic technology-oriented school that constantly ranks and scores high and where the students actually care at least to some extent about their grades. I can't imagine going to a better school.
Sixteen was challenging. School demanded most of my time and attention, especially while I was catching up on the summer reading I'd missed as a result of moving a few days before the school year started. My Honors World Lit class, funnily enough, was harder than any of my AP classes. Sixteen was also challenging in the sense that being alone a lot at the start of it gave me a chance to be really independent and learn not only how to rely on myself more but also to dig deep into introspection to learn things about myself I hadn't known before. But I overcame the challenges sixteen tossed in my face and came out on top with a better understanding of myself.
Sixteen reminded me of what matters most in my life. It reminded me to never take anything in life for granted. It reminded me of how wonderful and beautiful friendship is, whether it's an old one being tested by distance or if it's a newly formed bud. It brought me even closer to the piano, a haven that offers me comfort and understanding. Sixteen also re-solidified my need for writing in my life as a way to explore my thoughts, my feelings, and myself or to escape from the world for just a little while.
Sixteen gave me the answer I needed about the direction of my future. If you asked me if I would change anything in the past year or if I wish I could have avoided the hard parts, I'd say no. Why? Because it gave me another opportunity to grow up, and everything going on in my life put me in a perfect position, both mentally and emotionally, for a little boy named Ronan to enter my life and make me realize a calling in pediatric cancer. It was the answer I needed and my chance to do something worthwhile and meaningful with every day of my future. This was the best gift I've ever received. Seriously.
Sixteen was also extremely rewarding. I had the satisfaction of putting my lit teacher's non-existent record of giving a 100 percent on the big, required sophomore-year research paper to shame. There was honestly nothing I had ever done in high school that made me as proud as that research paper filled with the words I labored over for far too many weeks. Hearing my teacher praise my work on the last day of class was extremely satisfying. Sixteen also rewarded me with two more fives on my AP score report, adding to my growing collection. I also started blogging for HuffPostTeen while I was 16, and I still get a feeling of exhilaration every time I see my writing published on the site. I could get addicted to the feeling of seeing my hard work pay off.
Sixteen was insanely fabulous. From winning an armful of signed books from my favorite authors throughout the year to making new friends to rocking out in orchestra with crazy people who got me, I had a great time. And I will never forget the feeling of pure elation and joy, of being on cloud nine, when Taylor Swift, the shooting star I've loved for years as one of her die-hard Swifties, tweeted about my HuffPostTeen piece on Ronan and pediatric cancer and called me an inspiration. Taylor and her songs have been my life's jam since I first feel in love with her all those years ago, and I still can't believe she called me an inspiration. I don't think I will ever be able to stop fangirling over that. Thank you.
Looking back on 16, I'm suddenly struck with the realization of the biggest lesson 16 taught me. It gave me an opportunity to discover how strong I was. It threw curve balls into my life to give me the chance I needed to prove to myself that I can do anything. I am a survivor. I'm strong enough to look for hope when hope seems to have fled and to believe in myself. It made me find the courage to find the light at the end of the tunnel or light my own match and let my flames illuminate the way for others, too. I learned how to better adapt to different, unfamiliar circumstances even while I learned to hold my head up proudly whether or not I was alone. I found my sense of direction again. Sixteen taught me how strong I can be by myself, and it taught me to never underestimate that strength.
Sixteen was amazing, and I can appreciate the vast difference between where I was at its beginning and its end. The optimist in me is telling me 17 can be even better. I believe it. So here's to 16 and the unique lessons it taught me and the experiences that shaped who I am today. Here's to another year into the future, another section in the chapter of my high school years. Seventeen, may all your days be full of whatever challenges life decides to throw my way. I'm ready for you.