If you’ve never seen the website Dear Teen Me, you should take a look. It has letters written by authors to their teen selves. Some are funny, some are full of great advice, and some are downright heart-breaking. I see myself and my students in many of the letters.
I haven’t (yet) written one of those telling letters, but on my 33rd birthday, it’s crossed my mind that I used to be quite a different person, while still being essentially the same, if that makes any sense.
I thought I’d share a poem I wrote almost exactly half my life ago, after I returned from a summer program in France. I thought it was pretty cool. I might still think that, and I still don’t care if you agree. And I still lie about that sometimes.
“Partial Observations” (written 1998)
Paris is a city and like all cities it is a study in excess.
Yet, it is an excess different from the one I know.
The streets smell of piss and flowers
And the people all smoke their cigarettes all the way down.
Everyone tries to hide themselves but things hang out between the cracks of ancient buildings.
I watch them because I know they are different from me.
They watch me back,
Perhaps for the same reason.
I spend ten minutes on the metro being convinced that I’m not American.
Then my passport proves us wrong,
And the man walks away in disappointment
As a stream of softly-southern English escapes from its prison behind my lips.
Now, an American speaks to me in broken, faltering French.
Ou sont une toilette? she smiles.
Then I point, allowing French to flow easily from my open mouth.
I’m sorry, I whisper as she scurries away.
Suddenly, my obsession has become tiresome and heavy.
But again, I’m not alone,
As there are many sad people here.
Somehow, the thousands of lights
Have only made obvious the confusion and loneliness
Present in the largest of crowds.
So, to teen me, I would say:
It will all be okay. The world is both beautiful and tragic, because they have to go together. You are partially observing this now, and someday you will begin to understand it.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. But don’t be too hard on others either. You’ll always struggle with the desire for perfection, and you’ll never get there. Learn to let go and have a little more fun.
Keep writing, because even if this poem is overly emotional and harshly critical, you have an eye for humanity, and a passion for words. Marry this to your ambitious streak and you will be successful. Even if your definition of success changes.
And you, dear reader, what would you say to your teen self?
Where should I send them?
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