The Secret to Happiness is to Always Look Forward by
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A Letter to My High School Self

In the final analysis, I am happy.


Hi, Jeff.  This is yourself, writing from 55 years in the future, with some advice based on what I have learned during that time.   Here are some things for you to consider:

You should forget about your relationship with K___ W___. I know that you think you are in love, but it is really just hormones and mystery about sex.  You already know how to relieve the hormonal part, and you will have plenty of time to work out the mystery when you get more experience in dealing with members of the opposite sex.

I can tell you now that she will break up with you, by telephone, during spring break of your freshman year in college.  By the end of that year, she will be married and pregnant.  You will spend the next thirty years waking up in cold sweats thinking about her until you finally realize that marrying her would have doomed you to spend your life in a small-town existence with a woman who was far below your intellectual capacity.

You will meet many more interesting people in college and afterward.  You will marry one of them and have two wonderful daughters.  While that marriage will eventually end, you will then meet and marry another delightful woman who will be your intellectual equal (or perhaps superior!) and the real love of your life.

Your high school is terrible. Yes, you are the smartest person to graduate from that school in many years, but you have not been required to work hard at any point.  You have not learned any research skills, you have not had the opportunity to take any advanced placement classes, you have not been pushed by your teachers to really delve into any subject in depth.

In spite of the lack of challenges, you will score very highly on the state scholarship tests and on the SAT and Achievement tests, and as a result you will be offered admission to both MIT and Harvard.  You will, correctly, choose Harvard, although your reason will be name recognition rather than the prospect of a more well-rounded education.

You will find when you get to Harvard, however, that while you were the most intelligent person in your high school, there are many, many equally intelligent men and women there, most of whom are better prepared than you.  You will learn about prep schools, where many of your fellow students learned study habits and skills that far surpass yours.  You will quickly learn that your lack of preparation in math and in library research skills are an impediment to your success.

Nevertheless, your ability to put thoughts together will get you through the process of writing essays, and your native ability in math will allow you to keep your head above water, barely, in the demanding chemistry and math classes you will take.  (A certain amount of grade inflation will also help you.)  You will earn some distinction in your freshman year, qualifying you for a John Harvard Scholarship and a Detur Book Prize.  But then, K___ W___ will break up with you (see above), you will spend too much time bemoaning that fact, and you will let your academic work suffer as a result.

It will be very hard for you to get around the fact that your high school is terrible, since it is the only school in your small town in southeastern Ohio and you don’t have any real models of academic excellence to follow.  Perhaps you could ask Mrs. B___ for help in research skills, although there is no adequate library to work in.  Perhaps you could ask for some more challenging textbooks in math, but there is no one there who could guide you as you work through them.  I guess my best advice would be for you to head to Harvard with a full understanding of how far behind you are so that you are prepared to work harder than you have ever had to work before.

Given your lack of preparation, you will be tempted to only take classes at Harvard that you feel you can excel in. You will actually reach for the “golden ring” in your freshman chemistry class but will soon discover that your lack of math skills holds you back from really understanding what is going on in some the areas covered in that class.  And the Soc Sci class that you will take will be a challenge that you can actually meet, given your ability, as mentioned above, to organize your thoughts.  But you will move to easier classes as you progress and will only discover years later that some of the classes your better prepared classmates took might have been much more interesting than “Rocks for Jocks” and “Fairy Tales for Football Heroes”.

Do not be afraid to ask for help when you have trouble understanding something at Harvard. Asking for help is not an admission that you are less intelligent than your classmates, it is simply a recognition that you lack of preparation in high school has left you a little behind.

OK, let’s talk about your dad, who, as you have recently discovered, is not actually your dad. He really is an asshole.  His physical and mental abuse directed toward you results from the fact that your mother was married to someone else before him, although he is also abusive to your brothers, his natural children with her.  You will spend the next thirty years blaming his abuse, as well as your lack of preparation, for every problem you will have in life.  Only after your 25th college reunion will you see that looking backward is pointless, that the past is past, and that the secret to happiness is to look forward.  That reunion will mark a turning point in your life.  It would be far better for you to come to that realization much earlier, if you can do it.

Now let’s talk about your biological father. You will wonder for many years how much different your life would have been if he and your mother had remained married and you would have grown up in a better financial situation and with a better high school preparation.  Forget that.  You will finally make contact with your half-siblings fifty years later, only to learn that he was an alcoholic and abused them as much as your dad abused you.

Having said all this, I would not want to change anything about where I find myself today. I have a workable arrangement with my ex-wife, and an amazing relationship with my current (and forever) second wife.  I have five wonderful children (two of my own and three of my wife’s) and three young grandchildren.  I spent 35 years working for one company, and by the time I retired my advice was highly regarded by the vice-presidents and even the CEO of the major utility company.  Since retirement I have become a substitute teacher, respected and requested by teachers and students alike.  And I am a life-long learner, in many cases working to understand some of the topics in math and science that eluded me in my earlier years.  I just wish I could have avoided those middle years when I was always looking backward.

But, in the final analysis, I am happy.


Profile photo of Jeff Gerken Jeff Gerken

Characterizations: been there, moving, well written


  1. Suzy says:

    Great letter, Jeff! If only someone had actually given your younger self that advice, right? But as your last sentence says, you are happy, so it all worked out in the end. Thanks for writing!

  2. Marian says:

    You hit so many excellent points, Jeff, thank you for a detailed and engaging story.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    As someone who also came from a less-than-challenging high school, I understand how the transition to college academics can be tough. And Harvard, no less. I love how you discovered the importance of looking forward. Your happiness is well earned.

  4. How fortunate you are to have finally put it all in its proper perspective! Some people spend their lives being regretful or angry instead of letting go, moving forward, and finding happiness in the process. Well done.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    Jeff, you’ve given yourself and your readers a lot to process here. My husband jokes that some of these prompts give us an excuse for therapy. Indeed, I do find some of this writing to be cathartic. Your letter to your younger self ends happily, which is great! You share many ups and downs in your life, but seem to have resolved them and end on that high note. When we are in the midst of the storm, it is difficult to know when or how it will turn out.

    I was valedictorian of my high school class in suburban Detroit. As you described, we weren’t offered any AP classes, it was a large school that had college-bound students and Voc Tech, students, bound for the Detroit factories; a real interesting mixture. I remember standing at the row of bathroom sinks during my first week at Brandeis, discovering that EVERYONE there had graduated first or second in her class. It was my comeuppance and I knew that I had to work hard to succeed. But I always believed in my innate ability and that helped to get me through. Sounds like you now have that self-belief and the satisfaction the goes with it! Good for you.

  6. Jeff, you’ve given your younger self quite a lot to digest all at one time! Let’s hope he’s up to it. Meanwhile, the rest of us get the benefit of quite a rollicking, no-holds-barred,multi-decare narrative. Thanks for sharing.

  7. A wonderful story of your journey from self-doubt to self-awareness and the goal we all seek – happiness in ourselves and our lives.

    Parents, even abusive parents, may be doing the best they can. I’m so glad you rose above the hurt.

    • Jeff Gerken says:

      Nah, my dad was a mean, racist, misogynistic bully. My mother, who just died in December, was married to him for more than fifty years, and I really believe that she hated him for most of that time. After he died, in 2001, his ashes sat in a tin can in her recreation room untended until the house was sold this past year, and she left very strict orders that her ashes were not to be placed anywhere near his.
      My bio dad, according to my mother, told her that if she ever got pregnant and delivered a baby, he would dash its head against the wall. So I’m lucky that she separated from him after she got pregnant with me. My dad, who adopted me after they got married, was her divorce lawyer.

  8. Jeff, sad to hear all that.. Not just your mom, but of course other women as well stay in abusive marriages.

    Your strength to rise above those traumas and form a happy marriage of your own is indeed something to celebrate.

  9. Dave Ventre says:

    Nicely done; well organized.

    On a spooky note, what you wrote about your early education not giving yu the tool to pursue really difficult subjects could have been literally, word for word, written by me. It’s dogged me my whole adult life.

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