Dear 12-year-old me,
It’s just after Labor Day, and you’re about to start the worst two school years of your life. I don’t say this to discourage you, but to let you know things will get better.
You’re all excited now, about to start a new school—junior high-turned-middle school due to academic reorgaization—a fresh start. You’ll learn new things, which always excites you. You were accepted into the band playing drums!
You’re nervous because your one, dependable best friend isn’t going to this school with you. At twelve, you’re uncomfortably aware it is due to the fact she lives in a lower-income neighborhood and has some very different life situations and that there’s nothing either of you, at twelve and thirteen, or your families can do about it. You’re worried you’re going to drift away…and you’re not wrong. But you’ll reunite. You’ll keep your promise that she’ll be your maid of honor at your wedding. You’ll drift away again, and reunite again… and your 42-year-old self writing this is making a note to call her.
But this school year’s fresh start isn’t going to work in your favor. While you live in the right neighborhood and you’ve got the brains and ability, you’re not like most of the kids that are here. Most of the kids here have more money than you, and therefore are cooler. Most of the kids here are the ones that picked on you, shunned you (unless you could give them a test or homework answer) in the earlier grades. The other kids you’ll most remember are the ones that got placed in this high-testing school due to measures trying to help people, like your best friend, who are in lower income neighborhoods and have less access to good schools with lots of technology, swimming pools, new books, strong drama and music options, and award-winning teams in sports and academics. You have a general understanding of this at twelve, and you are glad more people are getting better educational choices, but you don’t understand the social implications of this yet.
Dear 12-year-old me, you get your first lesson in racial bigotry during these years.
You seek friendship from these new kids who are different from the ones you know and know you can’t trust, and while you’ve gotten on your report cards comments like “can’t read people” and “lacks good social skills,” you don’t really know what to do about that, so you set yourself up for a world of hurt and rejection because these kids don’t know you’re not like the other jerks who look like you, have a similar skin tone, and who look at them like they don’t belong there. They wonder, like how you often wonder, if your attempts of friendship aren’t some trick that will hurt them worse later. Unlike you—and this you don’t know yet—the consequences of them falling for tricks like that can be even worse than you’re broken heart and shattered feelings.
Hearing this isn’t going to lessen the sting of that girl shouting at you to stop following her group, threatening to kick your ass if you come near any of them.
You have nowhere to sit during lunch. You spend two years of lunches hiding in the band room. At least you end up the lead drummer from all the extra practice time.
Sometimes you’ll have temporary friends. One, we’ll call her Ja—, is a girl who has a mixed-race couple for parents. When she’s “black” enough, she can fit in with that table you can’t go near or you’ll get your ass kicked. It’s like being “cool” enough, to your comprehension—but much more complicated. She confides these things to you during one of your shared music-room exile lunches; you’ll remember it thirty years later. If she talks too long about the things she has in common with you, like reading fantasy books and comics or watching certain movies or imagining faraway lands, she is banished back to the music room with you. Sometimes you take turns singing your favorite pop songs into the microphone on the empty practice stage. When you break your ankle, she helps you carry your stuff for two weeks. You won’t remember seeing her again after these two school years.
Outside of those spare moments, everything else is mental and emotional torture. Even the places you once found joy and sanctuary, the classrooms and classwork, will betray you. You can never seem to score as high as the students who can afford better clothes, and many of the teachers like their answers better than your creative ones. You get a terrible pre-algebra teacher who will ruin most of your future math experience by convincing you that you’re terrible at math. (You’re not.) You’ll get your sacred reading books confiscated—and you’ll commit your first act of theft by stealing one back from the teacher as you leave class. The only good thing you’ll recall is reading The Left Hand of Darkness for the first time and having a crush on Estraven. You’ll wish you could remember the name of that English teacher decades later.
Dear 12-year-old me, you’ll try. You’ll save up pet-sitting and paper delivery money and ask for just one present for Christmas, because it’s expensive: A Starter Jacket. You have no idea what that is, really, except not having one was part of someone’s insult to you and one thing you figured you had the ability to change. You know nothing about college sports, and you feel like a fool trying to figure out where to buy one and how to pick one when the store clerk asks what team you support. You settle on Georgetown because it’s got a dog on it, and it’s a navy blue color that you like.
Wearing that coat is not the miracle you hope; you’ll quickly learn that you need to know the right lines and words and answers someone who wears a Starter jacket would say. And you have no idea what those magic lines, words, gestures, etc. are. Not at all. No Starter jacket, no United Colors of Benetton, and no Gap clothing (when it fits you) makes a difference. No matter how hard you work and save to look the way you’re expected to look, you will never look right. You’ll never, ever fit in with these people. You’re weird, you’re “too” smart, and your fat, and those facts give them the social allowance to ridicule, hurt, and erode your self-esteem in ways you’ll feel for decades.
Dear 12-year-old me, I’m sorry you go through this.
Things change, though, and as shitty as it sounds to you at twelve and thirteen, this suffering becomes a reminder to be kind, to be loyal to those you love, to be the smile or say the compliment that might be the one thing that gets another suffering person through their day. You decide you never want to be the cause of the levels of pain you felt; you decide no one deserves to be abused like that, and that everyone deserves a chance to escape that kind of abuse and bullying. You decide that you want to be the person that will make the kind, forgiving, and welcoming choice—even if it means you’ll get hurt again. Because what if your choice did make a difference for someone suffering, for someone who is acting out because they are in pain, for someone whose brain works differently and doesn’t realize they’re causing pain?
You get hurt. A lot. But it becomes your choice, your agency to be in that position.
It still fucking hurts. A lot. And you question why you are the way you are, and you have moments of cruelty when you’ve been hurt too much or when you’ve given too much and there’s nothing left…when there’s less than nothing left…to feed your soul. You’ll have moments of missing something—a social cue, a subtle request for help—that will hurt someone because your brain was focusing on something else. You’ll fail at helping others because you’re overwhelmed. You’re still human. (Despite the daydreams of possibly being fey or magical…after all, we were adopted and enough of our favorite books opened us up to that possibility!) You still keep trying, keep deciding to try to be the person you want to be.
You’ll find other people, people you admire and respect, who have made similar decisions based on similar circumstances. In fact, some of the kindest people you will meet will share that they had even worse experiences in bullying, in abuse, in trauma. And yet, they choose to be loving people, open to getting hurt again for the sake of not hurting another.
This becomes such a pattern that when you think of having kids you fear who they might become if they don’t experience the pain you’ve gone through. You question if compassion must stem from the experience of pain—and yet, you don’t want anyone to have to experience those levels of mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual pain, much less potential kids you’ll love.
Dear 12-year-old me, what you go through these two years works its way into your writing. Because we do write. And we do get published. That was the #1 Dream after all, and we stuck to it.
I am going to be a writer! I am going to have a job where I write!
How many times did we say that growing up? More than my 42-year-old mind can remember. And people called us stubborn like it was a bad thing.
I stubbornly held onto that writing dream. For so many years.
Dear 12-year-old me, yes, the next two years are going to be horrible—and while you’ll think of them as the most horrible, there will be other significantly horrible and shitty years. But you’ll be better prepared for them. You’ll have an even better support group. (And you’ll realize you were lucky you did have supportive family—many of your other friends who were bullied and abused did not, or their family was their abusers.)
Dear 12-year old me, things are going to get better. So much better.
The underfunding of the Springfield schools will mean that your high school will be so overcrowded that the population of geeks—people like you—will find each other and befriend each other. You’ll discover Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, DragonLance, Forgotten Realms, Tarot cards, pendulums, scary movies, and slumber parties. You’ll be an editor at the school paper and get whatever hall passes you need to avoid situations where you were separated from your friends. You and your friends will all volunteer to help in the library, making it even more of a safe space for outcasts for years. You will have friends that you will still regularly speak with in thirty years—their children will call you Auntie Trish! Because most of the group you’ll befriend is also neuroatypical, you’ll help each other figure out social expectations that mystify you.
You will re-learn enough confidence to dump the guy who wouldn’t support your dreams and go away to college.
You’ll make you “fresh start” in college so much better. You’ll wear a quirky hat that will get the man you’re going to marry to notice you. And you’ll let people you just met drag you to a party for a movie you’ve never heard of—The Rocky Horror Picture Show—hosted by that future husband. You’ll make the connection of sanctuary for geeks and outcasts, and you’ll gird your courage to ask if anyone plays D&D.
You will realize you’ve found your people within that first week of classes. You will be friends with them for decades, and their children will also call you Auntie Trish!
That cute guy who hosted that party is going to ask you to marry him that following April, and you’ll say “Yes,” and by the end of this very month, 42-year-old me and him will be celebrating twenty years of marriage.
But that’s not all.
Dear 12-year-old me, you’ll travel the world—and some of that will be tax deductible because of your writing career! You’ll have published three books written for kids like you, now, to remind them that they still have some power in a world where everything feels wrong. You’ll have won prizes for poetry and short fiction! You’ll help over a hundred other writers achieve their dreams by editing their novels. You’ll have a wait list of months for people who want you to edit their novels!
Dear 12-year-old me, it gets even better.
You know those unicorn and dragon pin-ups you pulled out of magazines to put on your walls? You’re going to meet those artists. You’ll buy prints from them that they will sign, to you. You’ll buy prints for your beloved husband from them. You’ll buy original freaking art that you saw them offer because you know them well enough, you’re friends with enough of their friends, to get these kinds of messages! And you’ll buy these things with money you earned from your writing and editing.
You know those DragonLance and Forgotten Realms books you own an entire bookcase full of? You’ll meet so many those authors, and they will sign things to you, in person. You’re going to invite one of them to write an intro in an anthology you edited. And she will say yes!
(Also, you edit freaking anthologies! Your name is on the cover as an editor who put it together!)
Oh, and you remember all those kids’ books you saved? You’re going to invite a prominent author from those into that very same anthology. And she will say yes!
You’re going to be on panels talking about writing with those authors you’re reading right now who will help you get through the most awful years. You’ll be on panels with the editors of those authors. They will treat you like a peer. They will say you make good points and have good ideas.
That shelf and a half full of R.L. Stine books you adore? You’re going to be in an anthology with him! And that anthology: it’s a tribute to all those Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark collections you checked out over and over from the library. You—you—made it into that. With a story inspired by working with horses.
Oh yeah, you also will have a horse. Yep. Your own horse. That will happen. You’ll work rescuing horses for ten years before you adopted her. Her name is Calico Silver, and she stays at a stable full of amazing people who get you and who you get. Your barn family is as special as your writing family.
So you see, 12-year-old me, you’re heart’s going to get broken a lot; you’re going to be made to feel like less than trash, not even human; you’ll question your worth and you’ll cry thousands of tears, so many your eyes run angry red dry. But you’re stronger than you think. You’re stronger than all of those who hurt you, than those teachers and staff who let them hurt you, can even imagine. That weirdness, that curiosity, that stubbornness, that day-dreamy-ness, that empathy and kindness you develop—those are all strengths. And they will lead you to be the person you truly want to be, a person you’re proud to be.
The thing is, 12-year-old me, you’re going to forget what I’ve just told you. You’re going to forget it a lot. While school and life get better, there are still going to be bullies, there are still going to be people who don’t see your value or worth, and every time you encounter people like that, advertisements that insult you, stories where people like you are the punchline…all that pain is going to come tumbling back–exponentially. All that insecurity. All that self-doubt. Whenever you have a moment where you feel you screwed up—even if you didn’t really, but just think you did—all these experiences are going to hit you hard, just about knock you down, and you’ll feel just like you’re hiding, alone, in the music room all over again. A piece of trash fallen out of someone’s backpack: Forgotten and useless at best; stomped on for amusement at worse. Thirty years later, as much as I’ve told you how much better our life gets—and I haven’t even listed everything—if I’m being honest, I have to tell you that it still hurts. It still affects us.
I don’t know if it will ever go away; our friends who are older still admit to suffering similarly.
But we have better tools to deal with it. We have more friends, real friends. We have a husband and his family on top of our own. We can write a letter to our thirty-years-younger selves to acknowledge that pain, honor it, and remind our 42-year-old selves what we’ve accomplished, why we are valuable and worthy, why we should be proud of who we are.
Dear 12-year-old me, you are loved, you are strong, and you are valuable. In what you will do and in who you are inside of me now, you matter. We will keep growing, keep choosing kindness and empathy in the face of abuse, and we will work toward a world where maybe more people can learn to be compassionate without having to experience the pain to understand why.