Friday, February 24, 2012

A Letter to the 14-Year Old Me

by John Spencer

Dear John,

So about school. I know you feel like a failure, but you're doing better than you think. You sometimes feel guilty about hating school while liking your teachers. Sometimes you even do the assignment just because you feel bad for teachers who internalize your apathy and think it's their fault. Don't beat yourself up over this. You think that FOIL is irrelevant to your life? You're right. You feel that the Periodic Table of Elements won't change how you live? Again, you're onto something. On most days you get frustrated and ask the question, "How will this help me live better?" Don't let school beat that question out of you.

Don't think that you suck at math simply because you don't memorize algorithms. Math is more than memorizing. Don't assume that science isn't your thing, just because you don't like to rip apart an animal in class. Some day when you have your own children you'll rekindle your love of science and realize it was never really all that dormant in the first place. Your penchant for staring at the sunsets or walking barefoot in the moonlight will never cease.

One of the greatest insights you have into life is that it's a vapor. I think you've always had it, but Lynn's suicide certainly drove that point home. I know you're squirming right now in the fact that I mention it. You want to brush it off with, "well she wasn't a close friend and really I'm okay." But I've seen you crying at night and I want you to know that there really was nothing you could do to save her.

You yearn for something real. The bad news is that you'll only get it in bits and pieces along the way, but when you do, you'll be amazed. You'll have some of the most life-changing teachers who speak truth into your soul in ways that others can't. You're deeply existential and sensitive and I know that feels like a curse right now, but it's a beautiful thing.

Beauty. You still cringe at that word. You still keep your poetry secret. That's fine, I guess. That solitude is how you will refine your craft. But there's nothing wrong with loving language. Being poetic isn't unmanly. Un-macho, perhaps, but not unmanly. Real men are warriors and poets who dream and act and listen. Embrace your desire to write. I know, I know, it feels like you're wasting your time reading books and writing stories, but these will serve you well in ways that you cannot predict.

With regards to being geeky, I can't help you. I know it seems like the girls aren't that into you and it's true. They prefer assholes at this age. For what it's worth, you've ignored some amazing geeky girls as well. Quit trying to learn how to throw a ball through the hoop. You and I both know they were lying to you when they said, "You can be anything you want to be." You're never going to be a star basketball player. But you know that sheer sense of joy you feel when you are almost floating on air in mile 7 of a long run? Someday you'll feel that on mile 19 as well.

The good news is that someday character will matter more than brawn and your acne will clear up and you'll find someone who is beautiful and intelligent and intriguing. You'll wake up next to her every morning and feel like the luckiest man in the world. And, yes, I know your junior high brain; you'll have plenty of sex and yes, it's all that it's made out to be. You won't call it sex, though. You'll call it making love and none of that will make since until you find that woman who will change your world.

In terms of your emotions, they never go away. You have moments when you lose your temper and you get frustrated with how easily you are hurt. You can't escape that. It is a part of who you are. Except, here's the neat part: they are redeemed somehow. I'd say God is a part of the process, but I remember what you were like in the eighth grade. That agnostic part of you laughs at the idea of God and for now that will do just fine. But someday that will be shaken. It's what happens when you ask too many questions.

Your anger will transform into this strong sense of social justice and you'll fight for what you believe in. Your sensitivity will move from something self-centered to others-centered and you'll find that your ability to listen and to empathize will make you a great dad and husband and teacher (permission to laugh at this - I know you can't believe you'll ever want to go back to school when it's over).

I know that life feels pretty awful. The cliques seem cruel. The kids seem fake. The subjects seem irrelevant. Trust me, even at thirty-one, I cannot look back on fourteen nostalgically. But I understand your hope that things will get better and I want you to know that your hope isn't wrong. Things get better. Way better. By the time you're my age, you'll spend most days feeling like the luckiest guy on the planet.

I won't end with a trite phrase like "be true to yourself" or whatever. I just want you to know that you'll be okay, John. You'll be okay. It really does get better.


John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink. He recently finished Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and A Sustainable Starta book for new teachers. He also wrote the reform-minded memoirs Teaching Unmasked: A Humble Alternative to Waiting For a Superhero and Sages and LunaticsHe has written two young adult novels Drawn Into Danger and A Wall for ZombiesYou can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer


  1. This brought tears to my eyes, John. This ability to look back at yourself at that age is a manifestation of your empathy for today's students, or is it the other way around? Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Thanks. I re-write this letter each year when I start forgetting what it's like to be a kid.

  2. What a beautiful post! I will show it to both of my teenaged children, each of whom will find something in here that speaks to them right now, and maybe even their recent past. Maybe I'll add one more paragraph - "oh and everything your mom told you? She was totally right." Naw, I'll leave it, it's just perfect. Thanks John!

  3. Wow! I enjoyed your letter immensely!

  4. My students need to read this and so I am linking it on our class wiki. I know it will make a difference to them. Thank you for externalizing what so many of us carry but would not share publicly.

  5. Wow, this could have been written to 14 year old me too. I am glad that these thoughts have been transformed into words and etched out in this space on the webz.

    Thanks, as always for taking the time to say what I only think. Funny we can tell our 14 year old students these things, but they really just need to go through it for themselves.

    "There's now way to grow that don't hurt." Iron and Wine

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