It started in fourth grade. Dave and I stole a bunch of glue and coated the playground slides before recess. Ten minutes later, the hall was full of sticky, crying, sandpapery kids, and I learned a new word: vandalism. Mrs. Kerr taught it to us. She said that’s what we’d done. Then we were sent out to clean it all up, but that word kept dancing off my tongue. Van-dal-ism. To me, it sounded like Cal-i-fornia, or Col-or-ado, or other magical words —a way to escape the cornfield where I lived.
Later that year, I stole a girl’s Cabbage Patch doll, stuffed an M-80 into it, and threw it into the cornfield to explode. I thought the firework would simply disintegrate the whole thing, but it left plenty of burnt and twisted plastic behind. Luckily, no one knew it was me. I figured justice had been done, because I hated the way the girl taunted people while doting over her doll. I figured that if the doll didn’t exist anymore, she might care more for others than for the piece of plastic she cradled.
I always had my reasons. I was a masked avenger. A destructive, anti-materialism superhero of sorts.
In middle school, I got worse. I always tried to be nice to people, but there was so much in society that I felt compelled to rail against. I snuck out almost every night in the summer and “borrowed” cars. I got in thirteen car accidents, imbibed things I shouldn’t have, and did some very creative property damage. There’s a lot more I could list here, but I’m not exactly proud of it, and I don’t want to give anyone ideas. Let’s just say, I could relate to the Graham Greene story “The Destructors” and I have a lot coming to me karmically. If I wake one morning to find that all the locks have been superglued shut, or if a couple hundred maxi-pads are stuck to my car, or if my house comes down with a case of boloney polka-dots, I won’t be all that surprised.
Recently, though, I was asked to write a letter to my teen self for the website, Dear Teen Me. Here’s the response I sent them, or see below for just the letter part. It’s my hope that by honestly reflecting on why I did the things I did, I can understand better how I could have been different, and how teens can avoid making the mistakes I did. I tried to keep my advice down to 10 simple things. Plus, I included a prom picture of myself with green hair (for more on why I dyed my hair for prom, try this).
ADVICE TO MY TEEN SELF:
Dear Wave (that nickname doesn’t last, BTW),
I know you’ve got better things to do than listen to an old coot like me do his best pseudo-Yoda impression, but there are a few practical things it would definitely help you to know. Don’t ask why these things are important, or why they work. Just trust me, they do.
1) Run every day. You have too much energy, and if you don’t find productive ways to channel it, all that energy will flow in more destructive directions. Running will make you happier.
2) Floss every night. I know it’s time-consuming and annoying, but believe me, it will save you tons of money down the road.
3) It’s better to be kind than smart. Intelligence is over-rated. Or, as the old saying goes, “The intellect is a great servant, but a terrible master.” Take that to heart. One of the greatest joys in life is being able to give someone a good compliment.
4) People have amazing stories if you can get them to share them. And the best way to do this is to learn to listen deeply and intently. Real listening is a rare and powerful skill. It’s a good way to get a date, too.
5) Don’t worry about what other people think of you. Most of them aren’t paying attention anyway (see number 4 —real listening is rare).
6) Go for quality over quantity with relationships. And try not to self-isolate. The mysterious loner thing isn’t that cool. You need people more than you think.
7) In all things, try to represent yourself as honestly and genuinely as you can. If you do something because you think you’re “supposed to” but you don’t believe in it, it won’t end up good. (Oh, and lose the accent. You grew up in a cornfield, not Ireland).
8) Know that everyone is just as anxious and nervous and scared as you. So don’t waste time worrying. Just ask her to the dance, make the first move, say something kind — you’ll be surprised by what can happen.
9) Save your brain cells. You’re going to need every one of them. Yeah, you know what I’m talking about. Trust me, it’s not worth it.
10) Remember what the poet, Lee Upton said, “Our risk is our cure…” But know that real risk isn’t about driving a car stupid fast or throwing back shots. It’s about being honest and true to your self. Reaching out. Saying what others are afraid to say. Standing up for people. Standing up for yourself. Going against the grain. And (oh yeah) kissing the girl.
As for why I was so bad, I think the simple version is this: as a teen, I had more energy than I knew what to do with. And if you can’t find positive directions to channel your energy, it will turn in more negative and destructive (or self-destructive) directions. I think that was the case for me. I hope I’m much better now —and I’m definitely still trying to give back more than I take away, so my life can be a net positive for the world. Whether I succeed is for others to judge. But I sure feel lucky to be alive.
So what about you? What would you tell your teen self if you could send a letter back in time?