Dear Young Lady,
Being a teenager is so confusing. If I knew a way to skip it, I would share my tricks with you. If I knew a way to make it completely smooth and simple, I’d be famous. If I could make you happy all the time, they’d pay me a lot more money than they do.
When you’re a teenager, everything is the worst or if it’s not the worst it’s the best or it’s both at the same time, like what causes you to laugh and cry simultaneously or what stretches a rainbow over a highway. Your frontal lobe is just screaming and most of you couldn’t point to that part of your head if I asked you to. Your hormones are like a whitewater rafting course and you might not even really understand what hormones are yet.
I was a ridiculous 13 year old, too. I was quiet and terrified and still trying to pass off my best tops from Limited Too as cool. I had a boyfriend whom I didn’t really know how to talk to. He made me so nervous that sometimes I just ignored him out of sheer terror. My pediatrician prescribed a face wash for my acne that burned my skin. I had to walk around around all pink, exposed and raw-faced. When my mom let me get my eyebrows waxed, the wax did not like the face wash and they teamed up and took it out on me. I got cut from sports teams I thought I should have made. I was placed in remedial classes where I did all of the talking and answered all of the questions–not a great way to make friends–but it helped me come out of my raw, pink, protective shell. And I say and admit all of that to tell you that I understand that being 13 seems an impossible task and 14 is no cake walk either. (The cakewalk was originally a 19th-century dance, invented by African-Americans in the antebellum South. It was intended to satirize the stiff ballroom promenades of white plantation owners, who favored the rigidly formal dances of European high-society. Source: Wikipedia.) On that note: don’t use Wikipedia.
But, barring any terrible tragedies, you will make it through. And on the other side of 13, you will be better for having lived it.
The thing is, hon, you loved me when you were 11, you liked me enough when you were 12. I was young and fun and smiley and caring. And now, I still try to be those things but you just think I’m obnoxious and evil and mocking and I “get too smart.” I’m sure that if I were you, I’d think that too–that’s what I need to remember: you are 13 and you (partially) cannot help it. Your body is doing weird things that smell and feel weird and can look awkward. Exponents are confusing. Why are they so small? Outer space is infinite. But what does that even mean? Shakespeare died 400 years ago. Does what they speak in England still count as English? I know your world is expanding rapidly and vapidly and it’s scary. You’ve got one leg under a Princess Elsa comforter and the other walking toward the open car door of an older boy. That’s what scares the hell out of me.
You’re a child. But adult things are happening to you. I know you don’t know what to do but you don’t know you don’t know what to do. You know?
Your brain is turnt up right now! It wants to make connections and learn new things. In your teen years, your brain is ultra responsive which sounds amazing. But it’s also a little freaky. New experiences seem like they’re glowing with potential and possibility–because they are. That goes for the good ones and the bad ones. Boys, alcohol, drugs–the bad ones–are calling to you like sirens yelling across your ocean of confusion.
The part of your brain that governs your judgment isn’t fully connected yet. You don’t have enough “white matter” which allows nerves to send signals throughout your brain. White matter is developing every day but in the mean time, you are still making decisions every day, whether you’re ready to make them or not. And some of these decisions have consequences that stick around.
So why am I telling you about you? I’m telling you about you for a lot of reasons.
I know you didn’t mean it when you told me to get out of your face. You spoke too soon when you said “Ms. Eby you don’t know how to help people be better.” While I wish you’d thought twice before you blurted out the f word across the room and I’d hoped you had already knew not to skip class, I get it. You are a human-in-progress. And sometimes, I will be a casualty of that–I will do that for you.
When I see you make the same mistake again and again with the same group of friends who only bring you down, I just want to scream at you. Instead, I pull you side with no one else around. I ask you, “Why did you go to 7-11 with those boys instead of coming to community crew?” You tell me that you’re not sure, that you knew better, but I already knew you knew better because we had this conversation yesterday, and Monday, also Thursday, and last week too.
Those mornings when I ask you how you’re doing and you pretend like I am not talking at all, let alone to you, I know you don’t know where to place your emotions. So you place them on me. I’ll hold them for you and hope that I am modeling for you how to be. Maybe someday you will be that emotional foam for someone else–all inanimate absorption. You will see that you shouldn’t take things too personally. That other peoples’ actions are not always about you. They know not what they do. They mean not what they say.
If I call your guardian to keep her in the loop, I want you to someday realize that I’m doing that for you. She and I are a team. We are Team You. I hope someday you know that I involve her because I know you do your best knowing that you’re being watched. You succeed when we communicate with you and also about you. I write down time stamps for when you arrive at school because she needs to know you took the shortest point from A to B. She needs to know you’re not wandering the streets of Baltimore like so many do. And I need the validation that someone else is out there watching you and caring for you and hoping for you.
When you succeed, when you raise your grade, when you win an award, when you write a poem, when you say “Ms. Eby, guess what?,” when you smile at me and just say “Good morning,” I know I am doing something right because you are doing something right. When you thrive, I thrive. If you only knew what your success means to me and to your other teachers, if you could walk around in our brains and our hearts, you’d understand. You’d get why we work all Sunday. You’d understand why we are on the verge of tears when you cut us down. You’d know how much you matter to us. You’d have the most dramatic eureka moment. For now, all we have are our words and our actions. So I will keep doing what I’m doing because you matter to me.
Thanks for reminding me what it’s like to be 13. I think I’d suppressed it 16 years ago. But I remember now. And I’m pretty sure you’re going to be okay. Someday, please call me and tell me, “Thanks for not giving up on me.”