It’s been over 20 years since I was 16, but I can truly remember it like it was yesterday. I find myself wishing I could talk to the girl I was back then. I think if we could talk—me at 16 with me at 36—we might be able to save ourself some heartache. In 20 years, I’ve learned some things I wish I had known then. If I could talk to myself back in 1995, I would say:
Listen, you know yourself better than what others give you credit for. People are always telling you “Oh, you’ll change your mind,” but the truth is this: You know yourself better than many adults do. In fact, I’m just getting back to the me I was at 16. Adults are so quick to tell you that you don’t really know anything and while that might be true in terms of life experiences, you actually do know who you are, and you are your authentic self. It’s taken me different states, countries and transitions to get back to her. I guess I just want you to know that you can be more confident in her. And maybe the adults are telling you this because they are lost themselves.
It’s hard for you to understand this, but your parents really do have your best interest at heart. That boyfriend you have? They’re just worried he’s a little too wild for you, and they worry that you will lose focus or give up some dream to stay with him. Or, the fact that they won’t let you board that plane to Chicago, alone, for the weekend? You’re 16. They are worried something terrible will happen to you. Just be kind to them. Someday, you’ll be a mom and you will spend hours and hours worrying about your children and what’s best for them. Then, you’ll understand your own parents even more.
Your family will always be there, even if you push them away. Things are a little tough at home now, and you don’t really like your parents. They don’t seem to understand you, and they are working on some things themselves. But one day, you will drop your daughter off with them while you go to teach your classes, and with just one smile and passing of her from your arms to theirs, you will see that they understand this perfectly. They will help you learn how to mother, and you will finally understand that parents are human, too.
You will always have one, good friend. Your best friend just left for a study abroad program, and you are devastated. You feel like she’s the only friend who really “gets” you—she’s a kindred spirit really, and you mourn her departure in the way only a 16-year-old can. But here’s something I want you to know: You are going to be so lucky to meet other women who are your soul sisters. I can’t even begin to tell you how blessed you’ll be with examples of strong women, of all ages, who show up in your life right when you need them. And this friend who is leaving? There’s a really good chance you’ll know her in 20 years, and you will still get together with her from time to time for a cup of tea.
Learn to let go. Sometimes, people will come into your life, and you have the tendency to try to make them stay. Don’t. The people who are supposed to be in your life—the people who really love you—will be right there, always. I wish you could learn this. Learn to let go and wish people well on their way. You have too many people who love you to care about the people who don’t.
Don’t give up on your dreams. You want to be a writer now or an artist of some sort. You write, you paint, and you sing. You’re actually pretty good at all three, and I want you to know that. You’ve just gotten back a story from your creative writing teacher. It’s the first story you’ve ever written, formally, and you were so excited to have her read it. She didn’t react the way you had hoped, and honestly, she crushed your dream. You need to pick yourself back up and keep going. Yes, people will be better writers, painters and singers than you are, but those things speak to your soul. Don’t give up on them just because a teacher acted like you weren’t good enough. I want you to know that someday, you’ll be the creative writing teacher, and someday, you’ll encourage a kid just like you to go for it. And eventually, 20 years from now, your dream will come true: You’ll be a published writer. Just keep going.
This is just some of what I wish I could tell myself back then. I didn’t know these things in 1995, and while I’m sure people tried to give me this same advice, I really didn’t want to listen. I guess we learn as we go, and life can’t be lived in reverse. But, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to listen more to the advice I’m given. And, no matter who we are or where we are, I think we can learn a lot from the girl we were at 16, good and bad. Maybe she had it all together, and maybe she didn’t. Maybe she’d be a kid you’d like now, or maybe she’s the kid you hope your child isn’t friends with. But no matter what, I’ll be trying to remember my “inner 16,” and I hope you’ll join me. And I also plan to be a bit more patient with the 16-year-olds I meet.