Dear Teen Me from author Jason Reynolds (WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST)

Dear Teen Me,

Jason's senior class picture.

Jason’s senior class picture.

If by chance this is the fall of your sixteenth year, and it’s a Saturday morning, I know exactly where you are and what you’re doing. It’s your first semester in college and you’re home for the weekend. You’re sitting across from your mother at the kitchen table. The radio’s on. Something old is playing, like Al Green or Marvin Gaye, and your mom is singing the parts she knows and humming the parts she doesn’t, while throwing out old coupons and balancing her checkbook—preparation for Costco—all of which makes no sense to you. I mean, to save a dollar on barbecue sauce is stupid. It’s only a dollar, and furthermore it’s only barbecue sauce, and further-furthermore who needs a gallon of it? Well . . . she does. And you know what else she needs? A big strong teenager to help her get the gallon of barbecue sauce (along with other gallon-sized condiments) in and out of the car for her. So guess who’s going to be her Costco shopping buddy? You are.

And you know what, don’t even waste your time being upset about it. Besides, you could use the thirty-minute ride, because—and you’re going to wonder how I know this—at the moment, you’re crumbling inside. And I mean, crumbling. Your ego has been pancaked—flattened and flipped—all because you are failing . . . English 101. Straight up bombing it. And you’ve never failed a class before. And English? You? You were one of the best writers in your high school!

In the car your mother will ask what’s bothering you. And you’ll wonder how she knows something is wrong. Listen, let me clue you in on something. While she was doing her coupon thing at the table, singing and whatnot, she was actually performing a mom-scan. What a mom-scan is is when moms pretend like they’re not focusing on you, when really they are analyzing every single thing you do. Your facial expressions, your body language, your voice, your patterns, and then they put all that data into their stomachs, and if their stomachs start rumbling (I guess it’s a rumble, but I don’t know. I’m not a mom. It might be a squawk. Or a bark), then they know that something is wrong with their child. And hers was rumbling like the engine on your father’s old motorcycle. Remember that motorcycle? The red and white one? Yeah. I know you miss that thing. But not nearly as much as you miss your father, which is the usual cause for a crumble session, but even that’s been trumped by how much you stink at the introductory collegiate level English class.

Here’s what you’ll tell your mother.

“I think the teacher hates me. Like, maybe she’s got something against me because I’m . . . I don’t know. I just don’t think she likes me. I write good essays, but she keeps giving me Fs and her notes always say stuff like just give me the facts. But, seriously, since when has it been okay to write a boring paper?”

And here’s what your mother will say.

“This is school. It isn’t about writing something entertaining. Or even writing something good. You’re going about this the wrong way, Son. Just give it to her the way she wants it so you can get the hell out of her class.”

And you’ll huff and nod, but you’ll keep the next thought to yourself—I just don’t think I can do that—coming to grips with the fact that you’ll probably fail this class. (What you don’t know is that she knows you’re thinking this. She knows you, pig head.) Either way, you’ll feel a little better because talking to your mother always does that for you. She’s both pillow and rock. As a matter of fact, they should sell moms like yours . . . at Costco. But what you don’t know is that when you get back home with a trunk full of giant-sized nonsense, you and your mother will return to the kitchen table, and she will then talk to you about the crumbling she’s been experiencing.

Brace yourself.

She will tell you she has cancer.

Jason, freshman year of college, in his dorm room.

Jason, freshman year of college, in his dorm room.

Then, like she always does, she will tell you not to worry about her. But, Jason, let me tell you something, and I mean this, worry about her. Worry about her like you’ve never worried about anyone or anything in your life. Know that over the next few years, you will have to watch her shrink. You will see her hair vanish. You will see her body scar and bruise from surgery after surgery, a new keloid running down her stomach like a zipper. And when you look at her, you’ll see her strength, but you’ll also notice for the first time that she’s afraid. Not because death is scary, but because she knows life without a mother at your age is.

Breathe, Jason. Breathe.

Fortunately, she will pull through. But it won’t be easy. There will be some frightening moments—some serious close calls—and it’ll take a while. And even after she comes out of it, worry about her, still. Worry about how she will adjust to this new life, post-cancer. She will no longer have a bladder. A physical piece of her will be gone. Worry about the insecurity that will strap itself to her back. Worry about the fact that she will have complications for the rest of her life.

Grown-up Jason.

Grown-up Jason.

I’m sure you’re wondering what kind of advice this is. I’m sure someone in your family a bit more religious will tell you that there is no need to worry because God will take care of her. And I don’t disagree. But, Jason, you have to worry about her, because it is in your worry that you will commit yourself to the bond you have with her. As you get older, life will get funny (I won’t spoil it for you, but dude . . . ) and sitting at the kitchen table will become harder to do. But it is through your worry that your son-scan will develop and you will able to tell when she needs you. You will make time to sit with her, listen to oldies on the radio, ride with her to Costco, laugh and cry and clench as many moments with her as you can. She will keep you grounded. And you will remind her of her value. And the two of you will know no greater friendship than each other’s.

That’s what your worrying will do. Somehow. And I’m not saying you need to worry about everything, but definitely your mom. I know it sounds stupid, but just trust me on this one.

What you don’t need to worry about, though, is that English class.           

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, January 2014.

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, January 2014.

Jason Reynolds is crazy.

About stories.

After earning a BA in English from The University of Maryland, College Park, he moved to Brooklyn, New York, where you can often find him walking the four blocks from the train to his apartment talking to himself. Well, not really talking to himself, but just repeating character names and plot lines he thought of on the train, over and over again, because he’s afraid he’ll forget it all before he gets home. WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST is his debut novel. You can find his ramblings at