Last night, Gabrielle Baker was boarded up in her room studying U.S. history like her life depended on it. She’d set herself up with a mug of green tea, she had some frozen strawberries on a plate beside her, her hair was washed and her jammies were on. She had four days before the big A.P. exam, in a subject that, let’s just say, hasn’t been her favorite.

But this was game time. She’d either do well enough on the exam to be exempt from ever having to take U.S. history again. Or she’d have to consider taking it in college. And so, it was time to study. Feverishly.

The night before, she’d returned home from a school DECA trip to California, where her team had made it to international competition. They’d spent five days in the Golden State, visiting everywhere from Rodeo Drive to Disneyland. It wasn’t her first time away from home, but it was her first time being so far away from home. She returned absolutely radiant from the independence she’d enjoyed all week and, from the moment I picked her up from school the next day, was chittering with updates.

A few weeks before her trip, she’d attended junior prom. As with the DECA trip, her mom was in charge, and Gabrielle stopped by our house so we could take pictures of her and her date before they attended the big affair. The concept of attending prom in grade 11 was a little foreign to me and I was perplexed by all of the hoopla, which included pre-prom events, corsages, photos downtown and an outfit change (but, umm, no graduation).

However, when she arrived on our front step in her black and gold prom dress, I suddenly got it. Once again, she exhibited that radiance: excitement coupled with innocence coupled with happiness.

And a few more weeks ago still, we hosted a dinner party with old friends, whose children we’ve known since they were little. Gabrielle sat close to me at the table during the party, as I always have her do. She participated in conversation that ranged from politics to religion. She cleared plates seamlessly. She was adept and intuitive in the kitchen. And her manners, they were good.

All of these events have made me consider the enormity of what it means to be in your 11th year of high school. There is so much launch and so much arrival at that time of your life. Arrival in that you come into your own in some important ways. You don’t need to be corrected for interrupting at the dinner table; you know how to contribute to conversation. You don’t necessarily need your parents to travel, you don’t get homesick anymore. And finally, finally, you get to wear a prom dress.

But there is also the question of getting a summer job and earning your own money: launch. Of getting your full driver’s license: launch. Of navigating a romantic relationship and determining what kind of person you will be in that union: launch.

The present is intense. Filled sometimes with unbelievable happiness, almost always with unbelievable pressure.

Upping the ante is the weight of the future pressing down. Most notably this week: How will I do on the exam? How will it affect my final grade? How will that grade look on my transcripts? Where will I get into college? Where do I want to go? Do I want to go? And if I do, what will I do when I get there?

I watch Gabrielle and I see her make mistakes. I see her have victories. Often, they sit side by each. It’s an amazing thing to witness a child grow up. It’s amazing how fast it happens at the tender age of 17.

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