Many years ago, a 16-year-old girl sat down to write a letter. To me.
My senior year of high school, my favorite teacher encouraged his AP Lit students to write themselves a letter, and stick it with one of those fancy forever stamps; he promised to hold the letters in safekeeping until four and a half years later.
When I finally opened my letter (riddled with teenage sass, two spaces after periods, my characteristic double-period, and typos), I was overwhelmed with a maternal affection for my former self. Among other things, I talked about my accomplishments during my last year of high school, the boy I wasted a whole year pining over, and my hesitation about leaving California. Apparently, I wasn’t as stir crazy as I remember.
Underneath it all, there was a potent mix of excitement and fear. That year, I’d accidentally coined the term “exscared.” I’d lived it. Much of the letter was too embarrassing or personal to publish, but below, the bulk of its contents:
I’m scared to be writing this, to be forced to think about where I may be in 5 years. What happens if I don’t end up doing journalism? Or if I haven’t really been in love again (doubt that)? As you know, I’ve been on such a set road for so long; the thought that I might stray from that road is intimidating. I don’t really know why I’m even doing this assignment.. I guess I just know how much I love snail mail and the thought of being reminded sounds like something my 21-year-old self would smile at. [My teacher] really is incredible for having an assignment like this. It’s like that one country song, ‘Letter to Me,’ only reversed…?”
[a bunch of stuff about boys]
“So much for that brain barf.. that isn’t what my whole senior year was about. Just the mistakes. I really feel like I developed a lot as an individual. AP [English Language] showed me how to write and appreciate satire, how to hone and focus my writing for a specific audience. AP Lit taught me how to think. I loved the logs [extensive papers we wrote every couple of weeks] regardless of how much of a pain in the ass they were. But they offered me the opportunity to develop philosophies and to expand my interests and whatnot by reading a greater variety. Of course, I also learned that there are some things I still don’t like.. like, for some reason, I can’t seem to swallow anything existential. Did that change? [Nope.] Do you still keep up with Liz Gilbert? [Yup.] I’m obsessed of course.”
[more stuff about boys, including this golden, narcissistic nugget] “Can I really handle someone more intelligent than I am? That sounds hard.”
“Gosh how’s Boston, though. It must be… winter of my senior year? [Close enough.] So I’m 21…finally :)”
“Really though, I’m so ‘exscared’ about going to school. 3,000 miles sounds like so far away. And like I tried to tell [my friend], choosing between California and the east coast is like choosing between two different parts of me. The person sitting here with the laptop, fake nails, and hair in a bun, with an oversized button-down over leggings [Did I think that was chic?] is the east coast girl, sophisticated (kind of) and hopefully successful. But what about the Marian that wears her too-long hair in messy braids and walks around in cutoffs and no shoes. With the weather and attitude of the east coast, I feel like choosing Northeastern over Santa Barbara means leaving that love child hippie freak behind.. and I’m not so sure I want to do that. I mean, it’s that flower child freak inside me that wants to travel the world and eat everything in sight and hear and feel and experience different cultures. If that Marian is gone, I’m just an uninspired nomad traveling from third world country to third world country.
For now though, I’m still plain old me…”
[more stuff about different boys—fast forward one month. Pass graduation, 17th birthday, chopping off hair. Pass Go, collect $200.]
“I went to orientation this past week, which was an interesting experience. I don’t know how much I’ll like the people at NEU. I mean, I can pretty much tell I’ll like the classes and lifestyle and whatnot, but I always am iffy about the people [I am? I was?]. Maybe I just didn’t get the best crosscut of an example, but my orientation buddies were a little loud and unclassy and kind of standoffish (though I credit that to the fact that we’re all strangers). Anyway, for the purpose of finishing this letter, I’ll say peace. And also, how the heck did you fit everything in? I don’t know how to do everything I want to at NEU and still breathe!! And also, did you end up joining the Peace Corps [Lol.]? Consider it because I want to now and I probably will want to later too [Meh.].
Good luck at your new life (I can’t wait!)
Marian the younger”
I anticipated my letter’s arrival (I’d thought it was coming 4 years after graduation—when most would graduate college, but the winter makes more sense…More time to get situated, find a job, and come home for Christmas break). So I was naturally excited when it finally made its way through my chain of USPS forwarding requests to my most recent address. Reading my letter was insightful, embarrassing, and fantastical.
I vaguely remember sitting on my bed and thinking about the most relevant details to include. I see that version of myself and cheer her on, knowing that there’s so much life to live in her coming years. Following my first read-through, I immediately drafted a response to my teacher and friend, thanking him for the exercise. I’m grateful that I took the assignment seriously.
I put a lot of forethought into writing my letter, and as a result, reading through it felt like talking to a shadow of myself, a shadow because there are still remnants of that 16-year-old in me; I’ve just built and continue to build myself up around her. But she was—is—the foundation. When I wrote my letter, I was stressed about leaving home, starting school, and somehow fitting everything I wanted to do in college into what turned out to be 4.5 years (and here I was worrying that 5 was too short).
I wish I could go back and explain that goals and wishes change. Peru turns into Paris, and Marie Claire turns into…not Marie Claire. One strength of being naive is that one is never lacking for dreams. Recently, as an adult for “realsies”—Is one ever an adult if they use such terms?—I lamented my lack of freedom. Tied to a job and a relationship (both of which I’m eternally grateful for), I will likely never again have the same freedom to travel, and start fresh. I envy my former self in more ways than one.
It isn’t entirely a positive experience, though, reading this letter. I want so badly to be able to write my 16-year-old self a reply, to coach her through the next couple of years. I want to tell her to give up on boys for a little while, to break away from the “set path” and seek opportunities she’s passionate about, not just those which beef up her resume. I want to tell her to taste duck, to invest in bitcoin, to think twice about the whole Mormon thing.
I want to tell her to hug her uncle.
It is a maternal protection I feel towards this encapsulated version of myself. But I suppose retrospect is always 20/20. All that aside, the last several years have been incredible, and I’ve been blessed with every opportunity to pursue whatever dream I dreamt that week. I’ve learned much, mostly from trial and error. Especially error. And I’m better for it.
To my teacher/mentor/friend, I wrote:
“Thank you for this exercise, for this unique and insightful look into just how far I’ve come. On my desk at work, I keep a Post-It that says “be better than you were yesterday.” It’s encouraging to see in retrospect that I’ve lived that mantra every day for the past 4.5 years. Thank you for playing your role–bigger, I think, than you’ll ever realize–in shaping the 16-year-old then and the 21-year-old now. I will forever count you among my dearest mentors and friends.”
Though I can’t pass my garnered wisdom onto my former self, I’m grateful others coached her in my (her?) stead. Cheers to the child in each of us.
Actually made me cry.
Thank you for everything, Bob. You’re an artist of a teacher.