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You Only Live Once

In the last year or so, the acronym YOLO has gained currency and credence with my teenage students and other young people across the country.  “You Only Live Once” has become something of a battle cry–perhaps this generation’s version of “Carpe Diem” with some dubious grammar (should it be “You Live Only Once”?)  While the expression has been around for several years, it was recently popularized in a rap song by Drake that is a little too colorful to post here.  From what I can gather from seeing YOLO used in hashtags and on tee-shirts, #YOLO is a mandate to do something wild and crazy, or perhaps live in the moment and think little about the long term consequences of one’s behavior.  While I have all sorts of preachy thoughts about the poor decision-making that some young people demonstrate at parties or behind the wheel, I actually want to broaden the definition of the phrase and think about how YOLO might translate to the classroom and student choices.

What if “You Only Live Once” meant to take academic risks and was a mandate to stretch oneself in new and challenging ways?  Just imagine that for a moment.  What if instead of using YOLO as a mantra to justify the purchase of an overpriced purse or a decision to drive 20 miles an hour over the speed limit, young people were inspired to take an AP class or learn a new language?  And let’s say that the AP class was really a struggle.  Perhaps YOLO could inspire a student to stick with it and know that in the long run, the hours of studying were worth the reward.  If a student embraced YOLO, would he be moved to take a class in a subject area that hasn’t previously been a strength, or try her hand at painting when an “artistic ability” has never been manifest?  In the classroom, YOLO could mean that students participate more, pose edgy questions, and pick the obscure research topic.  YOLO could mean that when the going gets tough, you don’t quit…because if you only live once, it makes sense to make this life count.  For teachers, it would mean encouraging our students to try, make mistakes, and be non-judgmental of the kid who doesn’t get the “right” answer off the bat.  Teachers could also adopt the YOLO philosophy and integrate new technologies, teach a seminar on a topic that is fresh, or even form a teacher team for the annual dodgeball tournament (I just need three others to join me…).

Could it be possible that the power of “YOLO” could be harnessed to inspire an athletic guy to try out for the winter musical, or a young person of privilege to jump into community service?  Could “YOLO” mean that a student who has already received the coveted college acceptance letter works hard through graduation, even when others are suffering from raging cases of senioritis?  What if “YOLO,” instead of causing young people to see life as fleeting and inconsequential, caused us to all stop and think about the incredible impact we could have on those around us?  Confront a bully.  Speak out against hurtful language.  Befriend a new student.  Thank a teacher.  Chose to be kind.

What if, instead of believing that your actions have little long-term impact, an 18-year-old realized that being his “best self” might mean making the choice that will bring pride to his 88-year-old self…and I am venturing to guess that won’t mean binge drinking or senior skip day.

I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, but at 43 years old, I look back at my teenage and young adult self, and see my best YOLO moments in my decision to compete in a 50 K Nordic ski race, intern at NOW Legal Defense Fund in NYC and teach English in Hong Kong.  I embraced the spirit of YOLO when I wrote passionate columns for the Yale Daily News, started a Ph.D. program (and finished, even though I wanted to quit often), and gave birth to my son and daughter.  These YOLO moments pushed me and challenged me, and I struggled, grew, and matured as a result.  YOLO can be lighthearted, too–there was that “Search for Madonna” contest back in 1992 where I took 2nd place and narrowly beat a drag queen–but YOLO doesn’t mean idiotic.  If we truly only live once, why wouldn’t we make every moment count?

PHOTO BELOW:  me having a major YOLO moment at the Rocky Gap Iron Girl Triathlon last month.  Or, perhaps I was just looking for an excuse to post this photo.

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