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What Not To Ask a High School Senior (trust me)

Updated: Mar 2, 2019


“So where are you going to school next year?”

You’ll want to ask every high school senior that starting in about November.


Seriously, if you don’t remember anything else you read here, remember that. It’s akin to asking someone who just got married when they’re having a baby. Or someone who just had a baby when they’re having another one.

Remember how you felt after bringing home your first newborn? That’s how overwhelmed a high school senior feels right now. And not all high school graduates are heading to college. For a variety of reasons…they want to take a gap year, to travel, to take a beat and figure it all out. The physical well being of some and the mental well being of others won’t allow for it.

Some will head straight into a career, or the military. Some won’t head anywhere for a while, paralyzed by choices, stymied by the familiarity of home. No one-size-fits-all answer exists, but I was asking questions as if it did. I asked more than one senior “where are you going to school next year?”, and I asked A LOT of parents before I learned my lesson.

The lesson came hard and fast when I asked a parent, a long time friend, where her son was going to school in the fall and then watched the emotions play over her face. Everything about her countenance changed and her voice wavered as she said “he’s not going to school next year, he’s going to take some time”…and then her wavering voice trailed off.

Lump met throat, and I grabbed her hand — “I’m so sorry to put you on the spot like that.” What I meant was, “Congratulations! You must be incredibly proud of everything he accomplished in high school. He’s always been one of the kindest kids and we’ve loved watching him grow into this amazing young adult. We hope he finds peace and happiness wherever life takes him.”

I said all of that eventually, but in that moment I floundered. What I actually said is lost to me (and I hope her), I think I stammered something incredibly awkward. I did grab her hand, and hope conveyed how much I adored both her and her son. I called later to say all the rest. 

And then I took it to heart, and try to carry that lesson with me. I do catch myself starting to ask sometimes, and I have to consciously stop myself. Even if a kid is wearing a Clemson t-shirt, I don’t ask “so you gonna be a tiger next year?” because I know they could have an older sibling who goes there, or that they bought the shirt on a visit a parent or friend dragged them to (they will always want to buy a t-shirt). And I try to stay focused on the present. On what they’ve achieved. On how hard they’ve worked, and how big a celebration this occasion should be. I wrote this a long time ago about my son’s high school graduation…

“He. Did. It. He got mad when he saw I’d written that on the back of his announcement because he said it made it sound like I thought he wouldn’t. Not true. I never doubted him, but we lost my older sister when she was 12 so I’ve learned there are a million things that can come between your child and high school graduation. There are a million things that can come between your child and tomorrow, so we should all celebrate the milestones, even when they’re expected.”

And we should.

Even though it has become expected that each of our children will graduate from high school, and often that they’ll then head on to college, we should stop and focus on the here and now.

Offer your congratulations on their achievements to date. Ask them what’s been the most fun, or the funniest, the most joyful thing that’s happened lately. Trust me, they’re worried enough about their futures; they don’t need any more pressure. But they might need, and appreciate, feeling good about how far they’ve come, and they probably have a great answer about what’s brought them joy and laughter along the way.

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