When I was little, my dad used to pick me up from kindergarten and drive me to Costco. We loved getting the free samples and looking at the new DVD releases.
On one particular drive, I remember looking out the window and seeing the clouds form a dragon in the sky. It was then that my dad said, “You’re special. Your entire life people are going to try to tear you down, but just remember you’re special.”
My dad — my role model — had just called me special. It was in that moment that living up to this label, to this specialness, became my priority. But what did this mean? How was I special?
Junior high was the best time in the life of Riley. I was one of the smartest kids at my school, I was enrolled in the coolest, most fun elective, and I fell madly in love with the coolest boy ever. We texted every day and never talked at school — ah, the beauty of being young and in love in junior high.
Then the greatest tragedy of life turned my world upside down — my best friend told me I wasn’t popular enough to be friends with her. I cried for days while listening to My Chemical Romance on repeat.
I started high school as cynical as cynics come. I refused to be a teenager and closed myself off. I scoffed at spirit events, made fun of the popular kids and spent all my time at home. I was mean and insecure and unhappy, but none of that mattered because I thought I was being special.
But nothing meant more to me than living up to my dad’s label. This desire consumed me. I lost myself along the way, and acting special became just that — an act.
During my junior year, some of my friends invited me to a football game, and despite the ritual going against everything I believed in, I decided I should go. Ignoring my instincts and stepping out of my comfort zone that night was the absolutely best thing I could have done at that point in my life.
The hot stadium lights made me sweat uncontrollably as I cheered for my team. I laughed with friends, formed inside jokes and actually enjoyed myself at a popular high school experience.
It took my school’s football team losing by 50 points for me to win myself back. That night, I shed my cynicism like a layer of skin. For the first time since starting high school, I felt young and free, limitless and alive.
Without sounding like a cliché, college has broadened my perspective even more. I look back and hate that I became a stereotype, even when I desperately tried not to be. I hate that I didn’t let myself be me. And most importantly, I hate that I was mean to people.
I still have a lot of growing and learning to do, but at least I’m open to it. I’ve spent my entire life trying to make my parents proud, and now I’m finally ready to figure out how to make myself proud.
My father’s words set me on an unexpected journey all those years ago. Now at 18 years old, I can’t tell you who I’m going to be in the next four, eight or 20 years. I can’t even tell you who I’m going to be at the end of the week. What I do know is that no matter how much time passes, I am still that 5-year-old girl sitting in her dad’s car watching the dragons fly through the sky.