Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Letter to Self at 14: A Prompt

Hello all! Well, if you read my last post, I decided to bring the Oppenheimer poem to workshop, and it gets shredded tonight, so I'll report on how that goes. I'm revamping "Tysketoser" and will likely use that as my next piece for the class. Thanks for all your input!

We have an essay prompt due to hand in tonight, and we were to write a letter to ourselves at 14. The catch: it has to be about your 14 year old self, and not about telling them about how life turns out, so much. It was an interesting exercise - I rarely think about my high school and younger days very much, and not very in-depth. I recommend it to everyone. My result is below.

Dear Me,

This year you're starting high school - but not, really, since the 9th grade center is separate. Be careful with yourself - it's a lot rougher than middle school. It'll be okay, though - you'll create a silent little shell, and do other people's homework, and make your way through. This is your first year of entrepreneurship - you'll make your small job working in the guidance office profitable by selling lockerspace to drug dealers, keeping them off your back. It's necessary now, but you'll regret helping them later. But you already know that. You'll also make a good dollar or three doing homework for your peers, but a quick note on that: don't do it too well. You don't have many close friends, just Nishi and Jen, but you've got a rich internal life. You're already preparing for college, and have been since last year, since you figure it's your only way out. I'll tell you this much: believe in it - you *will* get out. You won't go where you had hoped, but you'll go where you need to be and finally get to be yourself without so many restrictions. You'll like the person you become, and the people who know you now as the quiet pushover won't recognize you much. You'll shed Brentwood like a snake sheds it's old, too-snug, now-dry skin, and leave it behind just as easily.

This is your first unsafe year, lost in a sea of 1600 other 9th-graders. The only thing you are good at is school, and so you'll tuck your head and muscle academics into submission. This will serve you well later, and you don't need much coaching here, other than to not take it so seriously - you don't need ulcers at 14, those can wait. This is the year you find out just how much you like having assignments, and due dates, and a nice structure that you can understand with a reward system of grades. You're not much different than a rat with a piece of cheese, you with your homework and good grades. It doesn't provide much physical armor - this is the year Yvette will be shot in the neck in math class, and no number of theorems were going to help you then. Luckily, your penchant for sitting at the front of the class - you big nerd - kept you clear of the line of fire. Don't fret over it too much. It'll make you tougher, though, and you need that. In a few years, this sort of thing will happen all the time, and people will be numb to it, and it won't matter so much. Consider yourself well prepared for the millenium.

This is the first year it actually matters that you're a girl. One boy you don't like will try to kiss you - I'm impressed by your moves as you duck under his outstretched arm. One boy you do like will ridicule you in front of everyone you know, and you'll generate the bad habit of pining over someone who isn't worth much for far too long. The teachers won't catch the boy who is lurking in hallways and shoving his hands down the front pockets of girls' jeans until he tries it on you. You're overweight, and he can't pull his hands out quite fast enough - they get stuck there, on your chunky thighs, long enough for you to twist away in disgust and break his fingers, to leave him in snotty tears in the hallway, defeated by your fat. It will be the only time you are happy with your thighs - enjoy that moment.

This year you will make yourself proud when you talk back to Daddy when he asks why you're bringing a nigger into his house as you mention Nicole is coming over to study. You thought about not saying anything, but you were tired of his talking about your friends that way. He does it all the time, like you don't live in Spanish Harlem, like *you're* not the minority in school, like he doesn't pack you off to a school where he knows damn well that 40% black and 55% hispanic means that you'll have few white friends to bring home to meet his approval. You will say all of this over the dinner table, where you are expected to be seen and not heard, and Daddy will turn a shade of brick red that scares you to your molars. You'll take sanctuary down in your bedroom in the basement and count the horrible, thudding heartbeats, waiting for him to slam open the door and throttle you like he must want to. Try to breathe. He's not coming. And your choice of friends - and the color of their skin, or the language they speak - will never be brought up again.

You should cut dad some slack, though. He was raised in a different time, in a different house. You don't know as much about him as you think you do, though mom hints at it, and will tell you later about how he used to come home from school to put his alcoholic mother in the shower to sober her up before Grandpa got home from work and beat them all. By the time you know these things, it won't matter. You'll have spent most of your life dodging his quicksilver, random bursts of anger, and being wary of his good humored moments. Do try to enjoy them - he means everything he says - at the time. Enjoy him - the weekends of watching westerns you've seen hundreds of times, the popcorn out of the old popper, learning to pour his beer with exactly three quarters of an inch of foam like he likes it. When things finally break, you won't be able to fix them - twenty one years of normal family life will be snuffed out by a midlife crisis that involves cocaine instead of a new boat. Concentrate on what dad is teaching you that you'll keep - a good work ethic. He taught you to mistrust people who don't earn their own living, that no one is going to help you if you don't help yourself, and that country justice is the only justice that counts. He taught you that a promise is everything. Some other things you don't need to keep - like the idea that depression is just a case of too much time on your hands that can be cured with getting a second - or third - job. Or the idea that you are snubbing your family when you want to build a life that doesn't belong to Long Island. Remember that the good things he taught you don't become untrue just because in the end he doesn't follow them, and the bad things are not branded into your marrow just because you share blood and his last name.

You are strong enough to stand up for what you want, as well as for what you believe in. Just remember - your dreams may change. It's not good, or bad, just natural, so don't marry yourself to one idea of happiness. In your haste to get out of new york, don't forget that there are still people you'll be connected to for life - try to heal things with Meaghen, or she'll be as much a stranger to you in eleven years as she is now, and that's not right for sisters. Thank Mom as often as you can - she does most of the work that keeps your life running smoothly, much as you resent her for staying in this place, she's made her choices for reasons you know nothing about. You'll understand more as you have to make your own choices. Most of all, don't be so self-centered - if you pay even just a little attention, you'll notice that everyone else has their own sorts of pressures and stresses that they're dealing with. You're not the only one three steps away from blowing a gasket. I won't tell you to slow down, because I think your intensity is your ticket out of where you don't want to be, but try to enjoy it more. You don't think so now, but occasionally (even if only VERY occasionally) you'll miss this and the simplicity of it all.




Drew said...

wow. that was very cool.

Helen Rickerby said...

Wow Colleen, that was really moving. It sounds like you've come a really long way.

Colleen said...

:) thanks. This was interesting to write - I despised where I grew up, though now I can recognize it's no worse a place than any other. And it helped make me who I am, which I'm grateful for now, though I havent always been.