It’s August, and you’re a thirteen-going-on-fourteen-year-old girl who is super excited to start the 8th grade at Carson Junior High School. This week, you’ll go back-to-school shopping at Contempo Casuals in Meadowood Mall with not only the babysitting money you saved all summer but with a bonus $100 that your dad gave you from his “big win” at the casino the night before. You’re going to buy black Jellies pumps that will kill your feet, a pair of Guess jeans, and those awful cotton versatile white overalls that will get stretched out and stained and look horrible on you, but I’m not writing to warn you about your fashion choices. You’re going to love those purchases, and you’ll prove it by wearing them over and over.
No, I’m writing to prepare you. Life’s about to get difficult. In fact, it’s going to be the most difficult year of our life.
You’re so young and sweet. If I could travel back in time and be your friend for the year, I wouldn’t hesitate. I’d move in with you. I’d go everywhere with you. I’m sorry, but we’re about to lose our “kid-shine” (as the mother, Janice, in Tiger Drive likes to say). It happens so fast, and you won’t be able to point to when or why it happens, but it does.
You’re going to lose friends and be bullied all year long. They’ll draw attention to you by shouting embarrassing names at you in the hall between classes. You won’t be able to escape them at home because they’re going to prank call you non-stop. Unfortunately, your emotionally ill-equipped dad will pick-up another line just in time to hear one of the girls say she’s going to tell everyone at school that you give bl@w j@bs (obviously you don’t; you’re a late bloomer and won’t even start dating until college), but it’s okay; your dad knows you so even though he has no idea how to help you, he tells you, “I don’t believe them and no one else will either.” But it doesn’t mean you won’t still feel heartbroken that you’ve been rejected and because you can’t fix it. You’re going to pray on the bus all the way to school each day. You’re going to pretend to be sick as many times as possible and miss school. You’ll feel anchorless as you try to find solid friendships that year. And you will. There are other people who will become lifelong friends. They will stand up for you when you get surrounded in the middle of the gym. They will defend you against gossip.
You’re going to find sanctuary in your weekly confirmation class at Bethlehem Lutheran, but that’s also why I’m writing. The person who runs the group–I’m going to leave his name out of this–is not the pastor. He’s a type of intern. There’s something about him you don’t really like, but you’ve always been overly cautious, so you ignore your instincts for a long time. Then one day, when you think you’re in your happy/safe place in your confirmation class, he’s going to get angry at you for laughing. You’re just relieved and happy to be there, but he doesn’t know that. He thinks you’re disrespectful. So he removes you from class and tells you to wait in his office until class is over. He wants to talk to you alone. Who knows what his motives were, but you’ll trust your gut (and all those True Crime stories your dad made you read), and as soon as he closes you in his office, you’ll open a back door and walk home. Your mom, in one of her Mama Bear moments, will call the pastor and give him an earful about his intern. From that point on, you’ll join the pastor’s class, one grade up. He’s amazing, and the change is really good for you. The intern is gone within the year.
Your family life is also going to tank, and it will take decades to start healing. In the future, many people will think the worst time of your life must be when your dad kills himself, but what they don’t know is suicide is the result, not the beginning. Your dad’s addictions will increase. Your mom’s undiagnosed Bipolar disease will remain undiagnosed. And your family will become surrounded by a bunch of drug dealers and bikers. Your mom and siblings will start drinking and/or doing drugs. The toxic energy will be pervasive. You’ll be beside yourself and start bargaining with God, “If you keep me and my little brothers and sister safe, I won’t make new friends or try to be pretty and popular.” Obviously, you are desperate for friends, so this was your ultimate sacrifice.
But hang in there because something magical is going to happen that will not only save you, but it will change your life forever: you start reading teenage romance novels.
You’re going to escape into the world of romantic fiction after school and on the weekends. Your babysitting money will buy you many books. You’ll become a regular at Kennedy’s Bookstore. Our alcoholic father will be worried how you lay in bed and read non-stop. What these books do for you is make you believe there are other ways to live. Yes, you’ll know they are fiction, but you’ll like reading about the families and friendships, and you’ll think, “If someone is writing about this, it must be out there in some way.” Of course, you’ll enjoy the romances, too. But mostly you’ll love how the protagonist is usually an underdog. She always wins. She always has a happy ending.
And you will, too.
You’ll survive thanks to the books. When the summer comes, you’ll be fourteen-going-on-fifteen years old, and you’ll feel accomplished. You’ll know you’re a survivor, and you’ll be more confident. You’ll start dreaming about your future, and then…the phone starts ringing off the hook again.
For whatever reason, girl after girl will call you and tell you she’s sorry for the way she treated you. Each one means it, and you’ll be so happy that you’ll forgive them on the spot. Guess what? You’re friends with some of them still–decades later. They’re really awesome people and some are your greatest supporters now. It’s hard to say what was going on back then, but in hindsight maybe everyone was feeling rejected and scared.
Our family won’t be fixed so neatly, but now you’re armed with more friends, and you’ll find a ton of support from them in the 9th grade as your home life vanishes. You’ll become part of their families. They’ll include you in holidays, and they’ll celebrate your birthdays and graduation.
It’s funny how life works sometimes. All year, you’ll remind yourself that everything happens for a reason. Today, we no longer believe that; we believe that everything that happens creates a choice and a lesson. But as I write to you, I find myself agreeing with us at your age: everything happens for a reason.
If we hadn’t have been bullied, we might not have dedicated so much time to books and bookstores. We wouldn’t have made new friends that we cherish to this day. If we hadn’t been bullied, maybe we wouldn’t have been aware of the church intern’s odd reaction. Perhaps we wouldn’t have started dreaming of college and more. If you hadn’t read so much, maybe you wouldn’t have wanted to become a writer and write stories for other people to escape into. We’ll never know for sure, but guess what?
We’re an author now. Two days ago, I (You@46) revised a novel that I hope will connect with at least one person and make her/him feel less isolated or lonely in their world or thoughts. Maybe it will give someone hope. You’re going to be proud and feel amazing on this day. For the past thirty days of editing, I thought a lot about you.
I could tie your 8th-grade life to so many messages in this letter: everything happens for a reason, you can’t fix everything, some things just take time, sometimes it gets worse before it can get better, you’re never given more than you can handle—but mostly, I just want you to know how much I like you as a person. I’d be you all over again given the chance.
Thank you for being you.