Who writes mail anymore? Virginia Pye, author of the Shebook Her Mother’s Garden, has a beautifully empathic message for her adolescent self. We can all relate to this funny, moving letter.
Dear Teen Me,
Around the time this photo was taken, you started to change. I can still see your childhood self, hidden there behind the slightly uneasy smile. You’re shyer than you let yourself show, and by age 14 when this shot was taken, you’ve started to lose track of who you once were. In one way or another, you’ll continue to do that for the next decade or so.
I’m not going to tell you not to party, or sleep with guys, or drive drunk, or get yourself into situations you don’t want to be in. I’m not going to tell you to not give up on yourself more times than you’ll later even remember.
Instead, I’m going to ask you to stop worrying about being pretty. It’s a simple request, but, if you heed it, it could change everything. Instead of thinking about how you look as you talk to a guy, you can think about what you’re actually saying. And about what he’s saying to you, instead of whether he likes you or not.
By the time this photo captured your changing self, you had already loved one boy. The previous winter, you rode home on the school bus and looked out the window at a snowy world and noticed enormous letters he had stomped into the white sheets of lawn. He spelled your name in twenty-foot-tall letters. What a crazy gift that was—his way of shouting out his love to the whole neighborhood, hushed under a new blanket of snow.
You hung out together most afternoons after school, doing nothing, and managed to feel a thrill as you did so. Watching the fish in your fish tank together made your insides hum. Taking out the garbage for his mom and kissing in the driveway did the same thing. When he went away on vacation with his family to Florida, you both suffered. He returned after ten days and gave you a nautilus shell that you meant to keep forever, but didn’t.
But at the end of ninth grade, you got it into your head that he wasn’t something enough. Cool enough. Good-looking enough, tall enough, something. And if he wasn’t something enough, that meant you weren’t either. You broke up with him and couldn’t explain why. Tears stained you both, but for the first time in your life, you experienced the sensation of leaving someone behind—not just another person, but a part of yourself as well.
You started to look for boys everywhere, and very quickly you came to look like a girl out looking for boys everywhere. The chase seemed worth it, until you got bruised. Guys didn’t want you for the reasons you wanted them to want you—for who you were, what you thought, what you loved or cared about. Soon you couldn’t really remember those things anyway. You started to wonder if you weren’t much more than pretty. And then you worried you weren’t even that.
The girl seated on the bench in the photo, though, still looks like someone with real thoughts in her head. You had walked around in middle school with a copy of Anne Sexton in your back pocket and Sylvia Plath memorized on your lips. You liked to underline and make asterisks next to the best parts. You copied poems into notebooks and wrote your own on the facing pages. You were trying to say something, though it would take you many years to know what.
Maybe that’s why you broke up with the boy who had loved you—so that later you’d have a story to tell. Your reasoning was all wrong, and you’d go on to make even worse decisions, but some part of you wanted to experience everything at once: love and loss and everything in between.
Go back to that bench in the sun and look over your shoulder at your good friend who is taking the photo of you. She loves taking pictures and will go on to become a successful photographer of exotic locales and extraordinary people. You’re still friends with her to this day. But back then, neither of you knew you’d eventually become artists. Back then, you were more interested in how you looked to the guys walking by.
But maybe that’s what makes you a typical American girl: You go after your life goals, write your novel, build your photography career, work the several jobs, are a wife, mother, and daughter—all with a slightly self-conscious smile on your face that tries to hide any awareness of the way the sunlight glistens off your way-too-pretty hair.
This letter was originally posted on the website DearTeenMe.com.
Read Virginia Pye’s gorgeous short novel, Her Mother’s Garden, only at Shebooks!