Friday, September 02, 2011

Letter to Your 16 Year-Old Self

This sounds like an interesting book and an interesting writing exercise. Dear Me: A Letter to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self, edited by Joseph Galliano (Atria, $20, on-sale Oct. 25) with J.K. Rowling writing the forward to it.

I always have remembered my teenaged years as mostly miserable.  A feeling of straining to reach for grown-up responsibilities combined with fear of them while mourning for a childhood that was too quickly eroding away.

Courtesy of Arty Smokes via Flickr
Having reconnected with many of the kids I grew up with on Facebook, I now realize that these feelings were pretty universal, even for those who I saw as “having it all together,” with normal families, great academic performance, with hot girlfriends and boyfriends and respect as athletes.

I fit into none of these groups and hung out with friends who played Dungeons & Dragons, watched sci-fi TV, explored the forests in our neighborhoods, read comic books and listened to pop and classic rock music and endlessly discussed and argued about the nuances of them all.

At 16, I felt at my core that I was hopelessly geeky and stupid.  I was embarrassed that I was a terrible driver who took over 18 months to get my license when most boys tested and received it on their 16th birthdays.

I liked a lot of girls and even dated a few, but didn’t really know how to talk to them. I was so afraid of saying something stupid or revealing the true geek I was, that conversations with them often contained long, awkward silences. Academically, I struggled mightily at math and science while in English, which I considered by best subject, I was convinced that being placed in the Advanced Placement program was a mistake.

I would have loved to play football or baseball, as a passionate fan of these games, but I was awkward and uncoordinated with no natural ability, and as I discovered as an adult, very poor depth perception that made it almost impossible to judge the speed and distance of an approaching fastball, or where I had to stand to catch a punt. I grew quickly and was skinny despite all of my efforts to bulk up by drinking milkshakes packed with raw eggs and eating tremendous amounts of food at every meal.  Occasionally, I worked out with the encouragement of my friends, even though I was mortified by how weak I was and extremely self-conscious of it. I hated it, so it never lasted.

I knew so little about the world and was afraid of so much of it. I felt like the world had a giant blueprint of how you were supposed to act and what you were supposed to know that everyone else had been given, but I somehow I missed that day at school and fell left behind.  Above all I just wanted people to like me, and was mystified when a few people did not.

I think the teenage years, which are worshiped in our culture as being wonderful and carefree, are a mass of hard choices, unfair rules, and unwritten codes.  It is a world where adults are skeptical of, or actively dislike you.  It is a confusing time where we are introduced to sex, drugs, death, violence and alcohol.  Even if you weren’t involved with any of these, you are exposed to it.  And all the while you are completely unprepared to deal with it, and the knowledge that our parents weren’t perfect or had all of the answers we needed (or didn't want to hear us ask the questions if they did).  For most of us, these were some of the worst years of our lives, filled with regret and bad decisions.

There are lots of things I’d like to go back and tell my 16 year-old self, but I think I can boil it all down to this:
“Relax and don’t be so hard on yourself. You don’t have to be perfect all of the time. It doesn't matter what other people think of you, just what you believe in your heart. Don't let anyone make you feel stupid, ugly or unloved.  You are a great person with a great future ahead of you. Believe it and hold on just a little longer.”

What would you tell your 16 year-old self?

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