20 Things I Learned Before Turning 20

20 Things I Learned Before Turning 20

At five years old, I wanted nothing more than to skip right over the dullness of childhood and embrace the life of glamorous freedom that only a teenager could embody.

Teenagers, I supposed, had boyfriends, carried purses and always wore sparkly, hot pink shirts (I know this because I refused to wear any article of clothing that I did not deem appropriately “teenager-ish”). They also probably said things like “shut up” and “glamalicious,” two phrases that I tried fervently to integrate into my kindergarten vocabulary.

As I wrote this anecdote fifteen years later, I sincerely hoped that my elementary school self is more disappointed by the absence of sparkly shirts from my wardrobe than by the fact that I haven’t uttered the word “glamalicious” since the year 2003—I guess being a teenager wasn’t as cool as I had eagerly anticipated. While I can say with a fair degree of certainty that I didn’t achieve enlightenment over the past seven years, I have, however, gained a few nuggets of knowledge over the past two decades.

Here are 20 things I learned before turning 20:

  1. It’s okay to not be good at math.

A life-altering realization came to fruition one day as I sat at a table in my 4th grade classroom, weeping because I could not grasp the concept of long division while the rest of my classmates found it both easy and fun: I do not, nor will I ever, like math. And that is okay.

Math is very important in the real world, but so are the people who voluntarily choose careers in STEM fields because they are genuinely interested in those topics. You’re all amazing. Go cure cancer and build safe bridges— I’ll be sitting as far away from the numbers as possible as I write about your achievements.

Learning Math
My attempts to learn calculus through osmosis were shockingly more successful than my attempts to actually complete the homework.
  1. Swimming is supposed to be fun.

After a particularly awful race during my senior year swim season, my coach gave me pivotal advice for both swimming and life: “Swimming is supposed to be fun.” In that moment, all of the tears that I had been struggling to hold back came flooding out in a wave of relief that all but cured my sense of failure. I had been putting so much pressure on myself to be the fastest, for my own satisfaction and the satisfaction others, instead of paying attention to the aspects of the sport that I loved: the camaraderie, the sense of accomplishment at the end of grueling practices and, of course, the ability to eat 50 (ish) pounds of pasta without ever feeling full.

If you ever find yourself growing increasingly irritated at your “failure” in a task, take a step back and remember that swimming—or writing or cooking or just about any other activity in life—is supposed to be fun.

Swim Coach
Mrs. Bartek: A swim coach famous for her pep talks, dating advice and Swedish Fish stash.
  1. Don’t bank on your singing career…

Sometimes, no matter how many hours you spend belting out “Oops… I Did it Again” into the microphone of your karaoke machine as you jot down lyrics to your soon-to-be hit single, you will still get booed off the “stage” at your brother’s 5th birthday party because your music is too horrible for even your family to appreciate. While this is initially shocking and may cause you to run away in tears because you realize that you will never be the next pop-singing sensation, it all works out in the end when the year is 2007 and you aren’t going crazy and shaving your head bald.

The only existing image of The Masked Musicians whose lyrics to “You Never Knew That I Could Fly” contained more verses of “la la la la” than even Phoebe Buffay could compose.
  1. …but always sing about your favorite things.

When the dog bites, when the bee stings… You know the drill. Mind over matter is a very real concept, and whether you think about doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles or just repeat the phrase, “I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful” from the movie What about Bob?, you are guaranteed to at least not feel so bad.

Mary Poppins
Not quite Maria Von Trapp, but still a spitting image of Julie Andrews that’s practically perfect in every way.
  1. Have a little bit of both.

My great-grandma was notorious for asking for “a little bit of both” when given the option between two desserts, and I firmly believe this is a mantra that would make the world infinitely happier if everyone just gave it a try. Cookies or brownies? Chocolate cake or cinnamon rolls? Have a little bit of each, and enjoy your sugar rush.

You can have your dessert and force-feed it to your infant brother, too!
  1. “Hi, my name’s Mallory. What’s yours?”

Believe it or not, I was very shy when I first started school—so much so that my grandpa became as familiar to the school as the teachers themselves because he constantly had to poke his head in the classroom to assure me that I could survive the two-hour torture sentence cleverly disguised with toys, singing and snack time.

Yes, folks, I was the crier of my preschool class.

Perhaps it’s just the extravert in me talking (shocker), but more often than not, introducing yourself to the people around you and making a new friend in a strange situation can provide enough comfort to help you survive the most daunting tasks—even preschool.

Childhood Best Friends
I like to think that Olivia, a friend of mine since preschool, has stuck around for all these years because she finds me humorous and personable, not because I have her secured in a death grip at all times. That’s up for debate.
  1. Being popular is overrated…

When I was in the fourth grade, my friend and I looked up the definition of “popular” in the dictionary in hopes of proving to ourselves that we were more popular than the so-called “most popular girl in the school.” Interestingly enough, voluntarily looking up words in the dictionary did not make me any more “commonly liked or approved of” by my 9-year-old peers, nor did my incessant “how to be popular” Googling and subsequent list-making.

Shocking, right?

Fortunately, there has never been a point in my life (so far) when any potential employer has inquired about my fourth grade social status, so I’m fairly confident that the absence of skin-tight Abercrombie shirts from my wardrobe and the number of times I brought a book to read during sleepover birthday parties didn’t detrimentally impact my ability to succeed.

Dorky Middle Schooler
Actual thought that ran through my mind: “Perhaps if I alternate between straightening and curling portions of my hair, people will think I’m ‘cool’ and ‘trendy.'”
  1. …but being a good friend isn’t.

When you come across a handful of friends who don’t run and hide the second they notice your weird tendency to speak exclusively in puns and rhymes, dictator-like behaviors and inability to stop talking, you better do whatever you can to prevent those humans from leaving your life. Oddly enough, people tend to fiercely reject the idea of being held captive in one’s home no matter how badly you don’t want them to leave after hanging out, so instead, just stick to sending frequent “good luck,” “I miss you” and “I’m thinking about you” texts, and don’t underestimate the meaningfulness of occasional handwritten letters and surprise visits.

Teenager Friends
Also on the list of important qualities in potential friends: A willingness to pose for at least 800 photos in a given year.
  1. Be a goat washer.

As a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed soon-to-be high school freshman, I managed to sign up for every single core class and elective that one could possibly take in eight years of high school. When I received a note from my guidance counselor saying that I couldn’t cram 15 classes into a seven-hour day, my parents laughed at my inability to say “no” to signing up for anything that seemed even remotely interesting and joked that if the school were to start a Goat Washing Club, I would be the first to sign up and would probably become its president.

You don’t need a goat and a bucket of sudsy water to say “yes” to life. Attend concerts, try new foods, go on adventures and join new clubs—you never know what experience will lead to your greatest anecdote.

Student Council
More often than not, “Goat Washing” refers to finding enjoyment in traditionally “lame” activities like homecoming float building, or, in this instance, standing out in the pouring rain to hold an umbrella over said homecoming float.
  1. No, you’re not taking too many pictures.

I have never once looked back at the many snapshots in my archives and thought, “Gosh, I am so bummed because I have this terribly awkward picture of my friend! What ever will I do with these dorky videos of our middle school selves?

Yes, they’re hilarious, and no, I am not deleting them.

Taking Pictures
All in favor of bringing back film AND fanny packs?
  1. Follow current events.

Trust me when I say that there’s nothing more mortifying than sitting in an interview and repeatedly saying “umm…” and “uhh…” as you frantically rack your brain to find an answer to the question, “What news stories have been catching your eye lately?”

I would say that it makes you want to fall off the face of the earth, but face it: If you aren’t up to speed with the goings on in the world, you might as well already be off the face of the earth. Go download a news app and start reading.

Sassy Child
My exact face upon realizing that I couldn’t think of a single current event to reference in my interview. Moments later, I shriveled up and died.
  1. Don’t plan your wedding immediately after telling a boy you like him.

This one may seem extraordinarily obvious, but when you’re in sixth grade and madly in love with a boy who agrees to “go out” with you by checking the “yes” box on the adorable note you slipped in his locker, sometimes it’s hard to not go crazy and invite everyone at your lunch table to wear purple the following day as the official bridesmaids in your unofficial wedding.

I am very sorry, Anthony. Please forgive me.

Childhood Crush
I would also like to apologize to Tyler, who has also endured his fair share of my proposals. At least he stuck around for the photo op!
  1. Embrace your curly hair and the frizz that comes with it.

There was a point in time in my junior high existence when I would’ve done just about anything to rid myself of my frizzy, curly hair in favor of pin-straight locks: I tried brushing it, braiding it, smoothing it between my head and pillow in hopes of flattening it as I slept and, of course, straightening it. Around the time of my 300th bottle of gel, I discovered the miracle of leave-in conditioner and began embracing my curls, once and for all.

Frizzy Hair
For those of you who weren’t around to witness my luscious locks in 2008, here you go. You’re welcome, internet.
  1. You’re never too young to own a padfolio.

“What the heck is a padfolio?!” you may be scribbling into your average, $1 composition notebook, blissfully unaware of the classic, leather-bound varieties owned by real professionals— including some who are 16 years old.

As a CEO or president (or senator at Buckeye Girls State) in-the-making, there’s nothing that makes you stand out among your peers quite like a button-down or blazer. Whether you’re wearing a “snappy casual” outfit to class instead of leggings and a t-shirt or whipping out a padfolio (or at least a cute notebook) during a meeting, you’ll manage to convince those around you that you have your life in order, even if you feel like the least competent person in the room.

Professional Dress Up
This outfit, while undeniably fabulous, does not count as business casual. However, it is considered acceptable day wear.
  1. Go thrifting.

Okay, let’s be honest: None of us can really afford a padfolio just yet. Until the day you’re earning your CEO wages and can afford to shop at JCrew (and I mean shop their non-clearance racks!) for all of your professionally-attired needs, save some cash and stop by Goodwill or Salvation Army—you might just fool people into thinking you make more than $8.15 an hour.

Dressed Like American Girl Doll
At the very least, shopping at a thrift store all but eliminates your risk of looking like a carbon copy of everyone (and everything) you encounter.
  1. Don’t consult with your friends before picking out an outfit.

If there’s a former AOL employee out there whose job in 2008 was to archive everyone’s instant messages, I hope he/she got a kick out of the many, “i’ll wear my pink plaid skirt 2morrow if u wear a skirt!!!!” IMs that I sent to my friends. The hot pink plaid skort in reference was so freaking cute that I would probably would’ve worn it at least once a week if I wasn’t too worried about being the only one in my friend group who wasn’t wearing jeans— take my advice and just wear what makes you happy, even it makes you stand out. (Correction: especially if it makes you stand out!)

Middle School Fashion
What friend in their right mind would’ve let me dress like this anyway?
  1. You will always love Blue’s Clues.

“But, Grandma! I will ALWAYS love Blue’s Clues” I shouted to the entire drugstore as my grandmother asserted that it would be a waste of money to purchase the blue, dog-shaped lunchbox that hung tauntingly out of my reach.

Okay, fine. I don’t have a lingering obsession with Blue’s Clues, nor do I still play with my American Girl dolls (even though I insisted I always would). There are objects (and people!) like these that enter our lives from time to time, and while their presence is fleeting, their lasting significance is not. It may have been years since you’ve had Mrs. So-and-so as a teacher, watched that movie 15 times a day or wore your favorite shirt once a week, but while you may not always want to carry around a Blue’s Clues lunchbox, you will always carry around the part of you who did.

Blues Clues
Blue’s Clues snapbacks: The height of toddler fashion.
  1. Don’t fret about being the oldest or youngest in the room.

As a certifiable “young person,” there are frequently moments when I look around a room and think, “Gosh, if I were just a year or two older, maybe I wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable about saying hi/voicing my opinion/etc.”

For instance, like most high school freshmen, I looked up to the seemingly-omnipotent seniors, tried to emulate their every behavior and hoped that one day, someone three years younger than me would do the same. I later discovered that I was not an enlightened 17-year-old, nor was I particularly thrilled by the fact that I was the one who had to graduate.

Instead of freaking out because you’re the youngest in the room or entering into a mid-life crisis when you realize that the kids you are talking to are 15 years younger than you (!!), acknowledge that everyone around you is at a different point in life and pay attention to both what you have to learn and what you have to teach.

Role Model
For every “Big Mallory” out there, there’s always a “Little Mallory” trying to be just like her.
  1. Always have something to look forward to.

Contrary to popular belief, you aren’t wishing your life away by looking forward to the future—in fact, there are few things more energizing than the adrenaline rush that accompanies the anticipation of an upcoming event.

Whether it’s the vacation you have planned for next summer, a make-or-break phone call following an interview or even the playlist you listen to on your way home from work, make a point to always have something to look forward to each day, and enjoy the feeling of butterflies in your stomach that is often just as exciting as the actual event itself.

You can dream all you want, 6-year-old Mallory, but teenagerhood isn’t all pink tee shirts and sparkly Bratz lip gloss.
  1. Make every day the best day of your life.

Once your highly-anticipated day (or a spontaneous adventure) finally arrives, jump for joy, skip down the street and loudly declare to the world (or just your irritated friends) that this is THE best day of your entire life.

Meeting a celebrity? Best day ever. Find a penny on the ground? Best day ever.

When people question your overwhelming enthusiasm toward seemingly trivial occurrences, simply remind them that while everything may not actually be “the best thing to ever happen to you,” the fact that you clearly didn’t peak in high school is certainly cause for celebration.

Best Day Ever
“A tee shirt with my favorite catchphrase? Golly, this is the best day ever!”

My twentieth birthday probably wasn’t the everlasting high point of my entire existence (Cue all of the real adults saying, “Oh, these are the best years of your life!”). Stay tuned for many more adventures and anecdotes from future best days ever… Bring it on, third decade of life.

3 Replies to “20 Things I Learned Before Turning 20”

  1. These are all so very true and only get truer as you get older. I wish I could be 20 again so I could relive all my past experiences with fresh eyes just for the memories!

    One to add- always follow your heart and don’t listen to the naysayers. They will always be there to tell you not to do the thing. Do the thing. Otherwise you will always wonder if you should have. Do the thing. Do your thing!

  2. ragordon2017 says: Reply

    Great pictures. And if it makes you feel any better, I still have a fanny pack! lol

  3. […] that I find so much enjoyment in seemingly strange activities that if someone were to create a “Goat Washing Club,” I would eagerly join and become its president—I often feel compelled to uphold my title by […]

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