Dear Teen Me,
I did it!
I became an English teacher, just like you wanted when you marched up to your AP Lit teacher and announced that, one day, you’d have her job. (Though you won’t realize until later how much that sounded like a threat. It’s cool—she’ll end up being your mentor, so it didn’t make her too nervous.)
I’m a published author, just like you hoped when you sprawled on your floor and filled up notebook after notebook of stories. I still make soundtracks for my stories, just like you did, although I use an iPod instead of taping songs off the radio. Less DJ chatter over my favorite parts that way.
I went to Europe, just like you dreamed of but couldn’t afford. There was barely enough money for daily life in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Mom did a good job keeping things together, but Europe may as well have been Narnia for all the good it did you. I didn’t get to go until I was 30, but I went. I spent a long weekend in London, and it’s better than you ever imagined. I spent a month studying in Madrid, and I saw Las meninas in the Prado. All those places you’re reading about? I saw them. You’ll love them.
I keep wanting to say “we”. Because you were with me. You always will be. Your struggles inform every choice I make. I went to Europe because I want to show you the world. I write because I want your stories told. I teach because teachers were always the ones who looked out for you, who made sure you knew you deserved better. I see you in the girls I teach, and I want to make sure you get the chance to tell them that their experiences are valid, that being a teenager is so hard, and that they should embrace those weird little parts of themselves that make them so beautiful. I let my freak flag fly now—our obsession with poetry, our deep nerdery, our talent for saying something weird that stops the conversation. I don’t hide it like you had to. I celebrate it. I hope my students will celebrate their weirdness, too. I hope I make it look fun.
I wish I could tell you that it gets better. In some ways, it does. Some pain has yet to hit you, and I wish I could shield you from it. And, yet, even if I had the chance, I know I wouldn’t. Because the heartbreak you go through makes you better able than others to handle what comes your way. You are so incredibly tough, and I would not rob you of that. I would also worry it would rob you of your tenderness. You care too much. That, as it turns out, is actually a wonderful quality to have.
People have taken advantage of you, have been cruel to you, to your body and your soul. But you have reason to hope. You have people who balance out the cruel ones. Their love and compassion will buoy you when you’re about to drown. Remember that English teacher? The one you accidentally threatened? She’ll save you, more than once. The people who are your best friends now? You’ll have highs and lows, but some of them will be with you until long after you become me. David, who you met on the second day of ninth grade, will still be your best friend more than half a lifetime from that day. He’ll stand beside you on the day you get married. Who cares if there’s no such thing as a “bridesman”? You’ll find a way to keep the most important people close to you.
I hope I have your trust, and you’re excited that I’m the woman you become. I hope you’re proud of me. Because I know you read poetry the way some people listen to favorite songs on repeat, I want to include a piece of a T.S. Eliot poem:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
You’re where I started, and revisiting you now I see the purpose behind all those struggles, all that heartache, all that awkward joy. I can promise you that the pain will mean something, and you will be more fearless for living through the difficult times.
The truth is this: all those things I said I did? I didn’t do them. We did them. We came out of the darkness, and we feel better every day. We like ourselves more every day. You wrote a paper for your tenth grade English class called “Survival of an Ugly Duckling”. You read it aloud to the class, as the assignment stipulated. The other kids snickered. But your English teacher wrote on your essay, “I don’t see you as surviving, I see you thriving”. He was so right. You’ll live to see that. You’ll make it. I’m sorry to tell you, we’re not exactly a swan. We trip over the cords in our classroom with an alarming frequency. But the laughs in our classroom come from the giggles of our students discovering the delight of Shakespeare, and I defy any swan to bring that kind of beauty to the world.
I accomplished a lot of what I hoped I do, but I’m proudest that I’m you. You have worlds of beauty within you. Thrive, lovely duckling.
A. L. Player is a native of South Carolina living in Georgia. She teaches middle and high school English at a girls’ school in Atlanta, where her students astound and delight her daily. She did her undergraduate work at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, and graduate work in film and literature at the University of Georgia in Athens. Her guitar-playing husband also teaches English, and they take turns reciting poetry to their three crazy rescue dogs. “Player” is her honest-to-goodness real last name, and it gets about the reaction you’d expect. CLASS OF ’98 is her debut romantic comedy.