Claire Forrest’s first YA novel, the effervescent and emotional Where You See Yourself, follows its protagonist, Effie Galanos, through her final year of high school. As a wheelchair user, Effie has been treated as an “obstacle” by her school, and she hopes that things will be different at a prestigious, big-city college. To get there, she’ll have to find the courage to speak up about what she wants—and what she needs. In this essay, Forrest recalls her own commencement ceremony and offers some advice for this year’s graduating seniors.
The year is 2009, and I sit wearing a bright purple polyester gown at my high school graduation. One of my classmates delivers the commencement speech, something about how grades aren’t the be-all and end-all of life. I try to take it in, because this is the moment, right? Everything I feel, every decision I make from here on out, feels vitally important.
When I remember my high school graduation now, I think about how the district chose a venue that wasn’t accessible to everyone. One of my classmates and I had been told that sitting in the cushioned auditorium seats, with our wheelchairs in the aisle next to us, would be a fire hazard. Instead, we were assigned seating across the room, away from our peers, and we weren’t allowed to march in procession with our class. We decided to go against what we had been told and, choosing to miss the ceremony’s opening remarks, rolled through back hallways and down the aisle like we should have been allowed. There was no pomp and circumstance for us.
At the time, though? I pushed that down. This was my graduation day, and just once, I wanted to be “normal.” It took many years of unlearning what society taught me to realize that being disabled is normal. The long process of learning that I can hold “disabled” and “normal” in both hands is what led me to write Where You See Yourself.
And so, with all due respect to our class speaker, although I agree that grades don’t define you, I wish that day that I could have told myself some other things instead.
Adults all around me said that college would be “the best years of your life.” I would have told myself that there would be no singular best years of my life. Every year has had its own mix of joy, heartbreak, challenges, memories and uncertainty. I would tell myself to make the most of my next four years, but that they won’t define me.
Instead of focusing on my fear of moving away from dear friends, I’d tell myself to focus on the fact that I hadn’t yet met everyone who was going to love me. I will never be done making friends. There are so many inside jokes yet to be made, so many hourslong phone calls to be had.
I wish I’d known that those friendships would ebb and flow. That I would learn how to bless and release those relationships that have particular seasons that run their course, and that’s OK. I would advise myself to see things not just from my side but from my friends’ viewpoints as well. Like Effie and Harper, the best friends in my book, I would need to learn how to humble myself and apologize to those I love dearly when I was in the wrong. I also would need to learn how to express my needs so that those friendships could continue to grow and to change.
When it comes to being disabled—yeah, that thing I was pushing deep down in my pursuit of “normal”—I would have told myself that the people who love me would do the wrong thing sometimes, or wouldn’t speak up when I wished they had. There would be times I’d wish I would’ve spoken up for myself, too. Advocacy of any kind involves making mistakes. I would cringe. I would learn. I would do better next time.
I wish I’d known that a college professor would say the word ableism in class one day, and it would be the first time I’d ever hear of it. Later, when I’d Google it in my dorm room, it would crack my heart open in a way nothing ever had before. Learning about that would be the key to unlearning so many things in my life.
I wish someone had told me that being in a wheelchair doesn’t make me undateable. I wish someone told me that being dateable doesn’t define my worth.
I would tell myself that I was not, in fact, starting on the singular path to the rest of my life. I would always be pivoting, and for as many times as I’d start over—in my jobs, my relationships, the stories I’ve left unfinished—none of those new starts would wipe my slate clean. I would never be starting from scratch. I would learn as much from every wrong turn as I would from every right one.
I would tell myself that as much as I want to leave high school in the rearview mirror, my memories and feelings about that time would have a way of popping up again, much like how the songs from Taylor Swift’s Fearless album that I blasted through my headphones as a teen would get remastered and remixed when I was in my 30s. That I would start to think about how what we were told about fire hazards at graduation, and all the other inaccessibility issues throughout my schooling, really was just plain wrong. I would wish I knew then what I know now, and to address those complicated feelings, I would start to write a book. I might have been done with high school, but high school wouldn’t be done with me.
I wish I could have told myself all of this that day as I sat in the aisle in that hideous purple gown. I’m also glad I knew none of it.
So to readers embarking on their life after high school, I’ll say this: When it comes down to it, all you can do to figure out the rest of your life is to start. Your future is before you—everything, all of it. Go write your first page. But do so with the comfort of knowing you can always, always revise it.