Dear Teen A.J.,
[I originally hand-wrote this letter in a journal you started scribbling in at the end of 1986. Maybe if you look in the back of that journal, you’ll see my letter has traveled back in time to you. Probably not, but I hope so.]
It’s 2014, and you survived. Survived high school, and a round of bullying so bad you dropped out in your senior year and got your G.E.D. instead of graduating. For the record, you do pass the G.E.D. exam the same week your class graduates, and you already have one college course under your belt at this time. You go, smart girl. You will work a long time to convince people that G.E.D. does not equal “too stupid to finish school.” You always hold this accomplishment as a source of pride and I admire you for that.
You’ve also successfully navigated (but not without some damage) a slew of adulthood ups and downs. I won’t get into the details of these experiences, but do offer some advice that might help you understand someone who comes into your life in your late twenties: instead of silently accepting the jokes from the “cool kids” about the students who come to school on the “short bus” and take “SpEd” classes, speak up. Speak out against the hate directed at, and ignorance about, people with special needs. Volunteer to help out in the classrooms or even just befriend one of the students. This will not only make you a better person in your teens, but will assist you on a journey that shapes a significant portion of your life.
The only other subject I want to offer some “change this” advice on is about sex. It’s perfectly fine that you enjoy it. There is nothing wrong with having sex if both parties consent. You have, or will have, sex with a significant number of people before you turn 20. All along, you wonder if people will call you a slut.
Quit worrying. You’re doing nothing wrong.
But I do have something hurtful to say about some of the people you have sex with.
The popular boys you sleep with? Don’t do it. Not because you don’t deserve them, but because they don’t deserve you. You have sex with them because you like them and they tell you they like you, too. You believe they will ask you to be their girlfriend, and that you will become popular and accepted by association.
They don’t. You won’t.
And that doesn’t matter, because your real friends love you as you are. Further, the first time you have sex with a person you truly care about—who returns your feelings—will be exceptional. Not because the act itself is “curl-your-toes” phenomonal, but because it deepens an existing emotional bond that already means the world to you.
Now I want to advise you to do everything else just as you are. Wear the ripped tights and get the multiple ear piercings and listen to “alternative music.” Which is, by the way, still some of the best stuff ever made. Dance in the front row of a packed theater of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when “Twist and Shout” comes on. Let that freak flag fly proudly. Hang out with people who fit your definition of cool. They make awesome grown-up friends as well. Remember the group you went to the U2 show with in 1987? Believe it or not, you’re going to be front stage for a U2 show with two of those people in 2011. Yep, 24 years later, U2 is still kicking it, and so are you and Jenn and Susan. The only difference? In 2011, you will have the sense to wear earplugs.
Stay friends with the “oddballs” in that group photo accompanying this letter. You were young and beautiful then, and you’ve all grown into mature (and still beautiful) adults enjoying success, living your dreams. Though you and your friends were sometimes labeled as weirdos, (a term I gleefully embrace now!) you’re doing just fine now, thankyouverymuch.
You’ll lose contact with these people over the years, but will reconnect. I won’t say how, because one of the wonders of growing into adulthood in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is witnessing the birth of global communication and information technologies that you could never have imagined as a teen in the mid- to late-1980s.
Never stop writing. I don’t care if it’s poetry, nonsensical short stories, or stream-of-consciousness journaling. Just keep the words flowing from pen to paper, and later from fingers to keyboard. Writing will help you make sense of so many things, or at least just express your emotions when you have no one to talk to.
And a really big thing? Hang on to this journal that was a gift in 1986 from one of your friends in the group photo. She gave it to you to capture “all the beautiful ideas, thoughts, poems, and stories” contained in your tortured fifteen-year-old soul. She didn’t realize the value of the gift all those years ago. I don’t think you did, either.
Some of the poems, as well as the angst, recorded in those pages inspire song lyrics for a musician character you create. In a book you write. Actually, it will be the fourth novel you complete. It’s not published yet, but a few people have read it, and loved it. (Remember that advice about the special needs students? Also a major influence for that book.)
As bleak as some things seem to you now, your words will one day move people. Your ideas will make a difference to someone struggling with a difficult time in their own lives. That’s reason enough to carry on and work through the pain.
This life is yours. Make of it what you will.
Rock on, girl. And write on. Always.
I love you.
A.J. Matthews wrote her first book at the age of six, a retelling of THE THREE LITTLE PIGS. Illustrated by her grandmother, the book was never picked up and was self-published instead, glued to cardboard with a cover fashioned from wallpaper scraps. She’s written a lot in the ensuing years (though not every day,) and majored in English so she could write about books and earn a degree later in life—at the ripe old age of 35. Today, the Maryland native transplanted to central North Carolina pens stories featuring nice guys (or nice guys in-the-making) in between juggling jobs as a technical writer, a referee for two young daughters, and spoiler to a neurotic cat. She’s also a kick-ass autism mom. Special skills include consuming nachos, watching sports, eating an impossible amount of chocolate (this is a daily occurrence,) and making her husband shake his head. This also happens every day. Say hello to A.J. at www.ajmatthews.net.
Her first novel, GOODBYE TO YOU, was published by Swoon Romance in 2014.