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Lauren DePino (@youritalianhope) is a freelance writer and memoirist. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, InStyle and other publications.

In My Own Voice, Redefining Success and Failure

Alamy / Collage by Katie Kosma

Lauren DePino | Longreads | January 2019 | 21 minutes (5,245 words)

Upon eighth-grade graduation from my small elementary school in suburban Pennsylvania, each of my classmates and I walked away with a personalized memory book, hand-bound and laminated by some of our mothers. The theme, Planet Hollywood, in bubbly red type, sweeps across the cover like a comet, over the image of a metallic blue earth. Out of the iridescent globe jets a star-shaped photo of the respective member of the class of 1996.

To imagine that the best parts of our lives were yet to come felt like waiting for immortality to begin. There was an actualized version of us out there somewhere, living the life we hoped for. We just had to find the threshold. Our moment was there, laid out for us in plain sight — like a new outfit, just waiting, waiting for us to wake up and put it on.

My defining moment, your defining moment, it could be anything. It could be meeting a partner, becoming a mother, becoming a writer. You choose your blanks and you fill yourself in. You choose your questions and your answers. You pick your image.

In my eighth-grade photo, I’m encapsulated by a cerulean star. My smile is tentative behind braces and my chin protrudes ungracefully. I had blown out my bangs that morning, but by the time the photo was taken, they had given in to their natural curl. I was hesitant but hopeful.

The inside pages of our memory books display answers to questionnaires we’d filled out about what we wished to remember and who we wanted to become. On page 12, a thought bubble reads: “In the year 2006, I will be…”

When it came to envisioning the future, nothing felt out of reach. I now realize possessing this kind of incipient possibility is characteristic of privilege — of growing up in an upper-middle-class suburb where our biggest worry was not whether we could land a happy future, but which of many futures we would choose. It was also the height of the self-esteem movement, whereby parents and teachers told children that if they worked hard enough, they could be anything they wanted.

In my class, there were future everythings.

There was a major-league baseball player, a lawyer, a NASA scientist. A geneticist, a famous actress, a teacher. There was an obstetrician, a lottery winner, at least four mothers — but no dads, not yet. Someone foresaw “living at home and driving my parents nuts.” Another waxed: “I don’t think about the future, I just let it arrive.” There were a couple of question marks.

There was a paleontologist, an entrepreneur, an eye doctor. A big-time fashion designer. I wonder how many of us became who we said we would. I wonder how many of us still covet the adult life we had imagined for ourselves at 13 years old. I wonder how many of us can peacefully reconcile who we thought we’d be with who we are.

Mine was this:

Hopefully,
I will be a singer.

It looked just like that: a pyramid of letters, whose hope literally rested on the statement below it. It struck me that the mothers who edited the book chose to have “hopefully” hold its own line. Surrounded by gaping space, the word looked lonely and expectant. Hope is not certain. It engenders hesitation. It suggests anticipation without outcome. Why did I need to choose that word? When my middle sister Shayna saw it, she told me I jinxed my future. I don’t believe she’s right. But then again, all of my future hasn’t happened.
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