Here’s a pledge: if I have ever loved you – passionately, carnally, platonically, requitedly or not — and if you have ever written me a letter, I have that letter. The boy down the hall in first-year residence. My boyfriend in Grade 13. That Danish girl. The girl I married. But also letters from my best friends, every letter my parents wrote to me at summer camp, a letter from my adored second-grade teacher, Mrs. Ospolak. They’re all there, tucked away in a bag in the closet, tied in bundles with acrylic yarn.
I also have a thick pile of letters from the guy who stalked me in first-year university (roommate of Grade 13 boyfriend), increasingly maudlin and miserable, flirting with suicide. I’m not exactly sure why I kept them: partly for evidence, partly as a reminder of the intensity of that time in my life, partly today as some kind of creative inspiration, although the idea of actually reopening those envelopes and rereading the contents makes my stomach shift. (I don’t, however, have the very last letter he wrote to me, which was sent in an unmarked envelope; I steamed it open and read the last line – “I pity you and I pity the mediocrity for which people like you stand” (catchy, no?) — and then slid it back into the envelope, otherwise unread, and printed his address and RETURN TO SENDER on it, stuffed it back into the mail. To this day, not reading it is very likely one of my most fruitful acts of self-control.)
Another letter I no longer have — because I burned it — is a letter sent to me near the end of Grade 8 by a group of mean girls. I won’t get into the whole, sordid, story here, because I’ve already rehashed it in an essay in Truth Perceived, an anthology of Canadian nonfiction just put out by McGraw-Hill Ryerson as part of their iLit textbook series. But suffice it to say that it’s a story about bullying and its aftermath. (And what happens when the girls who were mean to you in junior high later on become your friends on Facebook. And you have to face the fact that you have all grown up in the wake of the complicated mess of adolescence in which you are as culpable as the next person.) And maybe some despairing 14-year-old will read it and feel slightly better? I can hope. Here’s a taste:
I wanted a daughter at first, couldn’t imagine what I’d do with a boy — let alone two. And when the ultrasound showed, unmistakably, that I was having a son, I was momentarily deflated. All my daughter-images rushed out of the picture frame in my head like the ocean at low tide, leaving me temporarily blank. Who was this baby if not the daughter I had imagined, the daughter I would protect from my own experiences, the daughter who would not come home crying every day after school, who would not starve herself or stick her fingers down her throat in an effort to disappear, cut bloody lines into the soles of her feet? Where was the daughter who would be both popular and compassionate, who would know what to do with her hair, whose mother would buy her the right clothes, who would have both the mass appeal and the strength of character I did not in junior high?
Where was the daughter who wouldn’t think she needed you?
While my essay is a letter to that collective group of girls, now women, it’s also very much a letter from me now to me then, the kind of assurance that I desperately needed (and probably wouldn’t have believed) that things would work out just fine and not to worry.
Which brings me to a different series of letters. The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to Their Younger Selves, is exactly that: anthology of letters from 64 award-winning authors and illustrators — including the likes of Michael Cunningham, Amy Bloom, Jacqueline Woodson, Terrence McNally, Gregory Maguire, David Levithan, and Armistead Maupin — to their younger selves, telling those kids what they would’ve liked to know then about their lives as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people and also as artists. Editor Sarah Moon has done a great job of putting together the collection, which falls into the “just one more” school of reading: I’d pick it up, and not quite be able to put it down. The stories echo each other, over and over, into a kind of collective voice: life sucks now, but it won’t always. You have — or will find — the resources you need to not only survive but thrive. The pain and the misery that you think is so unique and personal to you is actually pretty much a requirement of adolescence (and not just queer adolescence): other people have gone through the same thing as you, and you can learn and take comfort from them. It’s a message many teens — myself included — can use, or could have .
Scholastic Books has very kindly offered YOU — the readers of this blog — two copies of the anthology in a giveaway. I’m adding a third, my own well-thumbed copy (not because I don’t want to keep it for myself but because I really like the idea of even one more teenager having free access to a copy of this book). For a chance to win one, leave a comment on this post. For a second chance — and yes, I am well aware of the irony of this — click on the “like” button over there to the right and become a Facebook friend of this blog. Bonus karma points if your comment gives some of tip to your teenage self, but it doesn't have to. While you’re at it, you can “like” The Letter Q on Facebook as well.) Contest closes at midnight on Sunday June 3; I'll announce the winners on Monday June 4.
(If you’re already a fairly well-adjusted grown up, or at least a merely functional grown-up, by all means enter, but I’d love it if once you’re done reading the book you pass it on to some kid who could really use it. Or the public library. Or a local queer youth group. Or a high-school guidance counselor. Or some right-wing church. Etc.)