One evening during my freshman year in high school I experienced my first real, or what I perceived as real, heartache. The author of my misery was one of my senior friends who had figured out how to get under my skin and tinker with my emotions. Dramatic, I know. Yet despite the signals, you know the signals, I still couldn’t quite muster up the courage to flirt with her. So I decided to write her a letter. I poured it all out, and I decided it would be a letter I would give her at some point in our future, well into our marriage.
Crazy? Yes, of course it was crazy! By today’s standards one might even call that creepy stalker behavior.
But try convincing a fourteen-year-old of his own love-struck lunacy. We all experienced our own versions of it. My older brother, who is a cool and collected guy by any standard, experienced his own emotional roller coasters even if he would never admit to it now.
The Show Where It Started
A few days ago I caved and finally took out a subscription to Disney+. I am a child at heart, and as excited as I am to reconnect with old Disney favorites like Lion King–the best animated movie, ever!–I really took out a subscription specifically to get back in touch with my own favorite childhood TV series, Boy Meets World.
No, watching the show is not a prerequisite to enjoying this post. In fact, I’m going out of my way not to include spoilers in case you ever decide to give it a shot.
If I had to take a stab at summarizing the plot line, it might read something like:
Boy Meets World follows the adolescence and young adulthood of Cory; his best friend, Shawn; and older brother, Eric. From middle school through college, the family drama sitcom explores the emotional spectrum ranging from the typical advice on choosing the right friends and dating to the heavier subjects like prejudice, child abuse, alcoholism, and death. In short, it’s the up and down adventures of young adults meeting the real world.
I was weirdly obsessed with the show. There was a time when I would go to my aunt’s house and ask my cousin to flip the channel to it even though I am sure she would have much preferred to watch MTV or VH1. Later when I was a high school senior and worked after school, I made one of my sisters record it for me. The thought of missing an episode was unthinkable! I am very grateful to have beautifully empathetic women in my family who patiently fed my obsession.
Young Love Lessons
This past weekend while binging on my classic favorite, I was reflecting on what made the show so influential for me. Now, as an experienced adult, I marvel at the writers’ ability to collaborate on a script that could deliver a moral lesson in under 23 minutes per episode. It’s possible that even then, in the middle of my own adolescence, my subconscious was studying the creative methods adults could use to connect with younger people. Sadly, the rest of us don’t get the benefit of a George Feeny to deliver neatly packaged wisdom.
Sure, part of the appeal of the show is remembering the teenage angst we all experienced during our own adolescence. The number of bestsellers dedicated to teen romance speaks to how pivotal that phase in our development can be.
But at its core, Boy Meets World represented then, and still symbolizes now, a certain powerful love we are too quick to forget the older we get. Conventional advice correctly tells you to explore before settling down, but the disadvantage to this approach is that each relationship records an impression in your memory bank that inevitably influences the way you approach future partners. Each relationship leaves behind a certain amount of baggage. The older you get, the more baggage you accumulate. Sadly this baggage keeps us from tapping into the magic that made that adolescent season of our lives so powerful.
How many of your friends bemoan the state of dating today? There are apps and swipes and messages instead of phone chats and long walks as part of the getting to know each other phase, and this is assuming you are fortunate enough to get a human instead of a bot. Then again, it may not matter, because if you don’t like the profile you pulled off the shelf, you can always ghost them, if you’re somewhat kind, or outright block them, if you’re somewhat mean. I embrace emerging technology, but I wonder how much technology has killed that thrill so intertwined with young love.
We smirk now at the cute elementary school gesture where the little boy would send the little girl a folded note asking her if she liked him. Circle Yes or No. I never did so, but I know at least one of you reading this did. Cheesy or not, can you imagine the rush of courage it would have taken for that piece of paper to leave your fingers and make its way through the network of friends across the classroom to its intended target? Compare that to today’s approach where guys apparently fire off a message to any attractive photo in hopes something will stick…
I am not suggesting today’s relationships are predictable or bland. Dating by its very nature requires a certain vulnerability in putting oneself out there, regardless of the medium. What I am suggesting is that some of our insecurities are born of experiences we allow to play too dominant a role in how we present ourselves to others. As counterintuitive as it might feel, sometimes it might be worth a little optimistic risk to gain the most rewards.
Putting It Into Context
If you are in high school and find yourself in the middle of one of these overwrought episodes, enjoy the feelings for all they’re worth. You will never love as purely as you do now. Most of you will not yet be marred with the weight of responsibility or the burden of an extensive past. Paying bills and providing basic needs is still someone else’s responsibility. Keep a journal capturing these emotions. Write that letter to your special someone. Gush about your latest crush to your closest confidant until they get sick of you talking about it.
But, do not have sex! Another discussion for another day.
With the good, there will be bad. That is the frustrating balance to life. The heartbreaks are going to sting, and there is no easy way to shield yourself against the raw emotions. As a father I learned much to my dismay there was little I could say or do to help my teenage daughter get over her first breakup. The up side to these adolescent blows is that time really does have a healing effect. Even though you will not believe me now, you will move on. For nearly a month after my daughter’s devastating experience I would ask how she was feeling. Each day brought a slightly less mournful response until one day she confessed a budding interest in one of her fellow coworkers. With rare exceptions, high school will not be where you meet your forever love. You’ll need a few more years under your belt to fully appreciate the reality you need the low points to make the high notes that much more enjoyable.
College is a strange transition point. There is less social pressure to see and be seen. Depending on the size of your campus, your pool of available options is broader, but even if you go to a smaller university, your newfound freedom and independence generally make it easier for you to explore who you are and what you’re looking for.
Maybe it’s too much freedom all at once. Maybe in the course of testing your new boundaries you forget to relish the sweet moments. College is that point in your life when you start to catch glimpses of adulthood. Work study assignments are a gentle way of introducing you to work/life balance. Research papers are a soft way of introducing you to juggling priorities. The guy or girl you bring home to mama are weightier visits since they could be the one you take down the aisle.
If high school was the time to succumb to all the feels, college is the time to learn how to hold back a little. You should be your greatest priority. Establish the kind of career foundation you can lean on so that you are never dependent on any one single person. If you happen to stumble upon “the one,” none of my advice here will matter, but if you fall in love, make sure you fall in love of your own accord and not because someone tricked you into it.
If you’re beyond your college years, take a glance at the progression of the last three paragraphs. Not even my well-intentioned advice is immune to the grim reality of responsible adulthood! I wish I could pinpoint that exact moment when we flip from the naïve child to the skeptical adult. Then again, maybe not. I might be tempted to slowly squeeze the moment into nonexistence.
Because we’re fellow adults, I feel obligated to give at least a few pieces of practical advice: don’t rush to get married. Don’t fall victim to a scarcity mentality that makes a rushed marriage seem appealing. Don’t wait until it’s too late to get help. Don’t limit yourself to relationship advice that only supports your side of an argument…
But, I would also be remiss not to reiterate the entire point of this article: Do not become so old that you forget the beauty of what it was like to love when you were young. A few dents on your heart from disappointing risks are better than a heart grown stiff from disuse.
I choose to believe in the unrealistic benchmark set by the fictitious relationship between Cory and Topanga. They give me something to strive for. Even though I’d seen the episodes before, I still cringed when Topanga was told she would have to move away from Philadelphia, and the proposal at the end of Season 5? It still gives me chills! I know, I’m such a girl.
If you’ve never seen the show, you may have gotten the impression Cory and Topanga’s relationship blossomed without flaws. On the contrary, conflict is what drives any plot. Otherwise, what would motivate you to keep watching? But maybe it’s how the relationship evolved that sets the basis for inspiration. You don’t venture far from the core thread that drew you together. You don’t stop believing in one another. You don’t get in the way of each other’s success. You still find reason to kiss in the rain, and maybe if you remember these little details, you can almost leave your heart open to the greatest possibility of all, that love just might be able to conquer all.
I never gave my letter to my high school friend. Maybe I woke up the next day and recognized my infatuation for what it was. Maybe I realized the futility of my ardent emotions. She wasn’t ready for the deep and contemplative soul that was yours truly… In an interesting twist, she actually had a letter delivered to me. She was the first sighted person to figure out how to get a letter embossed in Braille without my knowing. It was a sweet letter cleverly tucked into my gym bag near the end of the school year, and in it she described how great it had been to get to know me. The creative and wildly imaginative spirit in me gave brief thought to that previously visited future of marital bliss. Mostly though, I was glad she was able to teach me something about love without hurting me.
What are your earliest stories of romantic love? If you could offer sage advice to our younger audience, what would that be, and if you are a member of this younger audience, what do you wish adults would remember most about what it was like to love in our youth? Sound off in the comments!
Avid fans of the show may be curious to watch this small collection of the best Cory/Topanga clips across all seven seasons: