It still doesn’t seem real to me that next year I won’t go back to the same school and see all of the same faces every day. I won’t go to the same coffee shops, I won’t wake up to the sound of my favorite little kitty scratching on the door at 5 in the morning, and I won’t run on the same trails, hurdling snakes as I go. I’ll be living in Massachusetts, over 3,000 miles away from the town I’ve come to love.

Teenagers like to complain, and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t groaned in agreement every time I hear someone say “There’s nothing to do in Yakima.” But, really, this statement is far from true. So many of us have been so eager to get out of here and never look back that we’ve forgotten to slow down and appreciate the place we call home. This place has given me so much over these past few years, and I really wouldn’t be the same person without it.

The dry heat and relentless sunlight might send me running in the summers, but when the leaves start to turn in the fall, I’m glad to have grown up in this crazy, mixed-up little town. Yakima, with its carpet of sagebrush and its patchwork of old trailers and hilltop mansions, has taught me so much about where I fall in the world and where I hope to go. This community is home to people from countless different backgrounds living vastly contrasting lives and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

Here are just a few of the things I’ve learned in my time here:

  • Be mindful of how the things you say impact those around you, but never censor yourself to the point that you’re scared to say what you feel. So much of the way we think is determined by our environments and our upbringings. So while it’s important to be cognizant of sensitive issues such as race and sexuality, if you find that you’re constantly wondering whether or not your opinions are acceptable, chances are you aren’t present in the conversation. Shying away from these possibly controversial topics for fear of saying something wrong only leads to more division; the interactions that help us to learn and grow are often those that make us the most uncomfortable.
  • Mistakes are inevitable, but the way you react and recover when you mess up is a choice. No mistake has the power to define you if you have the courage to take responsibility for the times you’ve done wrong or acted in a way that is out of alignment with your values. The more experiences you have and the more people you meet, the easier it will become to know how to respond when you’ve messed up. If you take the time to listen to yourself, deep down you will know what’s right. I guess they call that a moral compass or something?
  • I also found that in high school I gave a lot of value to things that seemed important in the moment but likely won’t matter much in the future. It’s so easy to let ourselves be defined by our achievements, and while I don’t necessarily regret prioritizing my academics in high school, I wish I had realized sooner that certificates and report cards alone will never lead to fulfillment. Humans may be nothing more than big blobs of carbon and hydrogen, but we are so complex and each one of us is full of our own unique wonder. No quantitative scale could even come close to defining your worth.

What really gives us purpose and makes us human are the connections we make with other people. Each of our experiences here on this planet is so unique, yet simultaneously we share so many of them with those around us. Forming new relationships and finding these commonalities will make you so much happier than burrowing deep down inside of yourself. An extra hour of studying might score you a few extra points on that chemistry test, but chances are that accepting the invitation you’ve been offered to get coffee will leave you feeling substantially more human.

With that, I’ll close by saying that while I’m grateful to my past, I’m equally hopeful for my future. By the time this article sees print I’ll be in the Ecuadorian highlands working on my Spanish and waltzing with llamas (or maybe alpacas). Then, after that, I’m headed to college on the other side of the country.

I have no way of knowing what my distant future holds but, with any luck, it will be fueled by passion and relentlessly curiosity. Wherever I end up, Yakima will always hold a special place in my heart.

Kathryn Conley is a 2019 graduate of Davis High School and first joined the Yakima Herald-Republic’s Unleashed student journalism in 2015. She plans to enroll at Williams College in Massachusetts this fall.