Don’t Peak in High School
by RJ Harrigan
You know the guy. Every time you see him, he works how awesome he was at football in high school into the conversation. Don’t get me wrong, if you were awesome at football in high school, by all means talk about it from time to time, but I’m talking about the guys who are defined by it. They want to relive their glory days because back then, they were somebody, and now, they feel just like everyone else. Working a menial job, paying bills, and wondering if this is really it.
I was that guy. I didn’t play football, but I lived with a different identity. I was the “back flip” kid. I was essentially a ghost otherwise. Barely anyone knew my name but if you said, “The kid who does backflips off the wall,” then they’d know.
I won’t lie, I enjoyed the attention. I loved hearing, “Yo, do a backflip! Everyone watch, this kid can do a backflip!” It meant, for those few seconds, they saw me. I was somebody. Backflip kid.
However, after high school, you run into people you went to school with and literally every single one of them would ask, “Do you still do backflips?” It’s completely understandable, but at the time, being young and aspiring to become a rapper, I got annoyed and made people feel dumb for even asking. I was reinventing myself as the pot smoking, wannabe-thug rapping bad ass.
I received even more attention for my music than I did for the flips. I loved it. It lasted a few years, and then it all ended. If you’ve read my book or had a conversation with me, you know that I developed a problem and hit rock bottom before I put the mic down and joined the military.
That was my new peak. Being a rapper. I let it define me, and I felt like such a failure. I didn’t get the same type of recognition in the military, so all I talked about was my “glory” days of being a rapper and people giving me drugs and partying with me. I talked about the places I’ve been to and the shit that I’ve witnessed that always got a reaction from people. That was my “cool” thing.
It didn’t dawn on me until after the military, during college, I took American Sign Language. My teacher, a wonderful woman, was born deaf and didn’t allow us to have a translator during class. We had to communicate by basic signing and body language. It was a transformative experience and on a side note, I highly encourage everyone to learn some sign language (at the very least, the alphabet).
The part that made me realize that I was living in the past was during the first or second week of class. We were sitting in a circle and we each had to introduce ourselves and tell the class something we enjoy doing. I was all ready to spell my name and try to communicate that I am a rapper/poet. However, somebody that went before me said they were into poetry. Our teacher said that she doesn’t like poetry because she doesn’t get it. There is a rhythm to poetry that we “hear” even when we read it that she isn’t privy to. The same goes for rap music, and most music. She likes very loud, bass-y music that she can feel, but lyrics don’t mean a thing.
I was stunned. I didn’t want to say that I was a rapper anymore, and it was almost my turn to sign. In that moment I thought, “Who am I without music?”
When it got to me, I just said I like hiking, which is true, but it was just the first thing that popped in my head.
For weeks, maybe months after, I was having an existential crisis. I kept asking myself, “Who am I?” I realized that I hadn’t been doing music for a while at that point, but I still defined myself as a musician. I wasn’t in the military any longer, so I couldn’t identify as that either. I guess I was a college kid? I didn’t like that identity. I began a long, arduous journey of self-reflection and I came to the conclusion that I defined myself by what happened to me, not by who I wanted to be.
I happened to be poor growing up. I identified as that, even though I was no longer poor. I got noticed for my backflips, so I wore that mask, and I allowed other people to dictate when I did them, just for a small cheer. My friends got into hip hop, and we wrote dumb little rhymes in our notebooks, then I got noticed for mine, so I went down that path full force, just for some praise.
I joined the military for me. I wanted to better my life, and I recognized that I was deep down the wrong path. I did it for me, and yet, I never identified with it. It’s like, I could only identify with what the world put on me, but when I made a choice for me, it was just “something I did.”
I had to change the way I thought about things. I needed to learn to like me for me. To provide my own source of happiness from within. To be proud of myself for doing what I WANTED TO DO, especially when it ended up being a good choice. I completely deconstructed my belief system and tore it to rubble. Then, brick by brick, I built (am still building) the identity that I want to be defined as. I choose. Now, I am a writer and a motivator. I am a gamer. I am health conscious. I am a man. I am honest. I have integrity. I am responsible, and I am self-aware, with the ability to change my life as I see fit. These are some of the qualities that I am right now, and I will always be changing and growing. I refuse to be the guy who peaked in high school.
Need advice? Email me at