My Story, A Letter Home

Not so long ago in A Glance Backward, I wrote about The Letter Q and the letters it contained from authors who wrote to their younger selves.   Below is a letter I wrote and put up here almost two years ago following the inspiration given by that book.  After posting the importance of Your Story this week on Serendipity, I thought about this again. Following the inspiration from another blog, I offer it up once more.

Letter to my younger self: Taking a tough look back

Dear Rich (at 14),

I know you are going through a tough time right now and you have learned to clam up about it.  You don’t know who to tell or even who to trust so you build walls of defense around your personal life.  These walls will not serve you well over time, I am sorry to tell you.  I can say it is good you did not run away, although you probably did not have the courage to do that anyway.  Your parents are going through an ugly time.  When they sold the house and got an apartment, you and your brother both knew it was a mistake.  The worst part about it is they made that mistake, they thought, for you.  It was to see you through grade school, but it should have ended when it was over.

The good thing about the apartment was the large bedroom and large walk-in closet.  It was an actual closet you could go hide in when necessary.  Too bad you only lived there for a year.  In this time you will take refuge frequently at a Boys Club where you have been a member and played sports, even though you were not real good at sports.  You are further away from the club now so school, a few friends and the Club will keep you away from home most of the time.

Soon you will learn that the first person interested in you sexually is another boy.  He is a year behind you in school, but not very much younger in reality.  He seemed quite experienced next to your naiveté.  The brief friendship will weigh heavily on your Catholic, guilt ridden conscience.  You will come to terms with this, although it will take you years to do so.  Many years later you will learn from your mother that this boy married (a girl) and still lives in the old neighborhood.  You will have moved to another area and stayed put for years.  I write to you from there and I can tell you that we found employment at the Club for a while and spent many years playing in that same park you found as a kid.  These will be good memories.

While you attend high school proms and college dances with girl friends, you will discover there are other boys who find you “cute.”  You never thought of yourself as cute or handsome so these attentions may seem a bit confusing.  When you get hit on by the younger brother of a close friend, you fear that the world will soon know all about it.  Don’t worry, no one knows.  At least, I think no one knows.  Other boys travel through your life, but none stay.  I think that is largely due to your stubborn attitude about most things.  I guess it is less so from where I am at now.

You will come to believe, perhaps rightly so, that your various groups of friends, and various lifestyles, will not mix well so you make sure they don’t mix at all.  This is a talent you picked up when you were very young.  Within these several groups, people only see one side of you and may believe that is all there is.  It is a defense mechanism on your part and I must tell you that in the long run, it is not beneficial.  You are solidly convinced right now that you are doing the right thing, but people will leave your life not knowing who you really are.  That will make you sad.  It is a hard time to be open, but I am convinced your friends will stand beside you, even as they do now.  Would you be surprised to learn that your closest friends after college and for many more years to come are mostly from your high school days, both from your class and a few that followed?  When you finally let them get to know you, they remain your close friends.  You will also make new and younger friends right about now.  They will be great friendships, perhaps because they really know you.  I guess I am not sure about that, however.

I would like to warn you that after high school and college you will make a lot of stupid mistakes.  You will invest times in meaningless friendships and all for the wrong reasons.  Dare I tell you of the beating you will take for who you are and the scars it will leave on your face and your spirit?  You were not going to have your class portrait taken for graduating from NEIU because it was soon after, but they convince you to come.  Your face will be bruised and battered from what they would now call a hate crime.  The photographer tells you that you can reject all the pictures and you are convinced you will.  I am glad to tell you they come out OK.  We would call it photo shopping now but you will know that they did a great job of air brushing the pictures.  I still don’t know exactly what that process is but it worked well.  I do not think my words of caution will do much good since I know you so well.  Would you steer a better course if I showed you the way?  I fear not, since you remain stubborn.

Despite the mistakes and the down times that will follow, I need to tell you this one very important thing.  It gets better.  Those three words will almost be a cliché by the time you get to where I am now, but it is true.  You will find many around you who will say the same.  It is the only thing I can tell you that matters.  I can not alter your course, but I swear to you that it gets better.  Please believe me.

Your future friend,

Rich

Learn to hate

“You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear…”

Small children will generally play with anyone and anything they find.  They do not know about hate and fear until they are taught.  Another three-year old is just another three-year old, unless an adult grabs him away and admonishes the child not to play with the other child because he or she is “different.”  That can mean many things to many people but passing along hate and fear is what society is good at doing.  If it was not good at it, then why is there prejudice and hate?  The three-year old can learn to become the schoolyard bully by the age of 8 if given enough instruction.

Teaching fear and hate does not need specific lessons or a handbook.  Adults can simply pass it on through mean jokes, name calling and hateful talk amongst one another.  Kids will get the idea real fast who they should hate.  They want to fit in with their relatives and the social circles they find themselves in, so they will quickly learn to mimic the hate and name calling they hear.  By the time they are teenagers, they might be so full of hate, they are able to beat someone to death.

‘You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear…”

Perhaps mom or dad will be quite pleased when they learn their little Johnny can repeat some of the evil jokes they themselves have told.  It might be amusing to hear their boy ridicule someone he met at school that is different.  They may feel a sense of pride that their son is just like they are.  This only reinforces the prejudice and hate.  Everyone wants to be accepted for who they are.  Imagine the good feeling a child can receive when they realize that parroting back the hatred they hear brings joy to the adults around them.

“You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade…”

There are a whole variety of things that children can be taught to hate.  I could put quite a list here if I think about it long enough.  It’s not just skin color or different eyes, it might as well be hair color, or glasses or clothing.  We can type, or should I say stereotype, just about anything.  Maybe if you just sound a little different you are someone to hate.  Your speech might indicate you are from another part of the world or the country or perhaps just another part of the city.  If a child learns early enough, he/she can hate a wide range of people.  It has to be done early, however, before a child learns to think for himself.  If you wait too long, the child may learn to rebel against the hate.  He may end up to be one of those teenagers who brings home different types of friends.  He may speak about peace and love.  He may join alliances at school that promote tolerances.  He may also be bullied
rather than be the bully.  What would some parents ever do with a child like that?

“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!”

When I was in high school our class put on the play, “South Pacific.”  It is the 1949 musical about fear and prejudice on a south Pacific island in World War II.  When it seems nurse Nellie can not love a Frenchman on the island because of his colored children, she can not explain why.  It is just something she feels.  When the Frenchman comments to a Lieutenant that he does not believe these feelings are born in you, Lt. Cable replies, “It’s not born in you.  It happens after you’re born.”  He then sings the song “Carefully Taught.”  I thought the song was way ahead of its time, even decades later when I first heard it.  Emile de Becque who left his homeland to escape prejudice tells the lieutenant, “This is just the kind of ugliness I was running away from.  It has followed me all this way.”

The play was an important lesson for me.  I had already started to learn the damage of hateful jokes and hateful people.  I guess many of our generation did learn the lesson, but apparently not enough.  Prejudice and hate continue to get passed down.  High profile hate crimes, hate crimes legislation and Public Service Announcements can not begin to eradicate the hate and fear that begins in the home.

I thought all about these things when I realized that the anniversary of one of the most brutal hate crimes of our times is today, October 12th.  It was 1998 when Matthew Shepard was beaten bloody with a 357 Smith and Wesson, “pistol whipped,” and left in a field to die.  The sheriff of Laramie, Wyoming, tells the story of the crime, not for sensational reasons, but because it needs to be told.  Matthew was one of those people who was different and consequently, others were taught to hate him. What was different about Matthew that brought out the hate others had learned?  Matthew was gay.  He was also a young man who should have had a long life ahead of him.  Hate took that away.

Sending a letter home

Not so long ago in A Glance Backward. I wrote about The Letter Q and the letters it contained from authors who wrote to their younger selves.   Below is a letter I wrote and put up here over a year ago following the inspiration given by that book.  I must confess that it was much harder to read now than it was to write it then.  Following the inspiration from another blog, I offer it again.

Letter to my younger self: Taking a tough look back

Dear Rich (at 14),

I know you are going through a tough time right now and you have learned to clam up about it.  You don’t know who to tell or even who to trust so you build walls of defense around your personal life.  These walls will not serve you well over time, I am sorry to tell you.  I can say it is good you did not run away, although you probably did not have the courage to do that anyway.  Your parents are going through an ugly time.  When they sold the house and got an apartment, you and your brother both knew it was a mistake.  The worst part about it is they made that mistake, they thought, for you.  It was to see you through grade school, but it should have ended when it was over.

The good thing about the apartment was the large bedroom and large walk-in closet.  It was an actual closet you could go hide in when necessary.  Too bad you only lived there for a year.  In this time you will take refuge frequently at a Boys Club where you have been a member and played sports, even though you were not real good at sports.  You are further away from the club now so school, a few friends and the Club will keep you away from home most of the time.

Soon you will learn that the first person interested in you sexually is another boy.  He is a year behind you in school, but not very much younger in reality.  He seemed quite experienced next to your naiveté.  The brief friendship will weigh heavily on your Catholic, guilt ridden conscience.  You will come to terms with this, although it will take you years to do so.  Many years later you will learn from your mother that this boy married (a girl) and still lives in the old neighborhood.  You will have moved to another area and stayed put for years.  I write to you from there and I can tell you that we found employment at the Club for a while and spent many years playing in that same park you found as a kid.  These will be good memories.

While you attend high school proms and college dances with girl friends, you will discover there are other boys who find you “cute.”  You never thought of yourself as cute or handsome so these attentions may seem a bit confusing.  When you get hit on by the younger brother of a close friend, you fear that the world will soon know all about it.  Don’t worry, no one knows.  At least, I think no one knows.  Other boys travel through your life, but none stay.  I think that is largely due to your stubborn attitude about most things.  I guess it is less so from where I am at now.

You will come to believe, perhaps rightly so, that your various groups of friends, and various lifestyles, will not mix well so you make sure they don’t mix at all.  This is a talent you picked up when you were very young.  Within these several groups, people only see one side of you and may believe that is all there is.  It is a defense mechanism on your part and I must tell you that in the long run, it is not beneficial.  You are solidly convinced right now that you are doing the right thing, but people will leave your life not knowing who you really are.  That will make you sad.  It is a hard time to be open, but I am convinced your friends will stand beside you, even as they do now.  Would you be surprised to learn that your closest friends after college and for many more years to come are mostly from your high school days, both from your class and a few that followed?  When you finally let them get to know you, they remain your close friends.  You will also make new and younger friends right about now.  They will be great friendships, perhaps because they really know you.  I guess I am not sure about that, however.

I would like to warn you that after high school and college you will make a lot of stupid mistakes.  You will invest times in meaningless friendships and all for the wrong reasons.  Dare I tell you of the beating you will take for who you are and the scars it will leave on your face and your spirit?  You were not going to have your class portrait taken for graduating from NEIU because it was soon after, but they convince you to come.  Your face will be bruised and battered from what they would now call a hate crime.  The photographer tells you that you can reject all the pictures and you are convinced you will.  I am glad to tell you they come out OK.  We would call it photo shopping now but you will know that they did a great job of air brushing the pictures.  I still don’t know exactly what that process is but it worked well.  I do not think my words of caution will do much good since I know you so well.  Would you steer a better course if I showed you the way?  I fear not, since you remain stubborn.

Despite the mistakes and the down times that will follow, I need to tell you this one very important thing.  It gets better.  Those three words will almost be a cliché by the time you get to where I am now, but it is true.  You will find many around you who will say the same.  It is the only thing I can tell you that matters.  I can not alter your course, but I swear to you that it gets better.  Please believe me.

Your future friend,

Rich

Letter to my younger self: Taking a tough look back

Dear Rich (at 14),

I know you are going through a tough time right now and you have learned to clam up about it.  You don’t know who to tell or even who to trust so you build walls of defense around your personal life.  These walls will not serve you well over time, I am sorry to tell you.  I can say it is good you did not run away, although you probably did not have the courage to do that anyway.  Your parents are going through an ugly time.  When they sold the house and got an apartment, you and your brother both knew it was a mistake.  The worst part about it is they made that mistake, they thought, for you.  It was to see you through grade school, but it should have ended when it was over.

The good thing about the apartment was the large bedroom and large walk-in closet.  It was an actual closet you could go hide in when necessary.  Too bad you only lived there for a year.  In this time you will take refuge frequently at a Boys Club where you have been a member and played sports, even though you were not real good at sports.  You are further away from the club now so school, a few friends and the Club will keep you away from home most of the time.

Soon you will learn that the first person interested in you sexually is another boy.  He is a year behind you in school, but not very much younger in reality.  He seemed quite experienced next to your naiveté.  The brief friendship will weigh heavily on your Catholic, guilt ridden conscience.  You will come to terms with this, although it will take you years to do so.  Many years later you will learn from your mother that this boy married (a girl) and still lives in the old neighborhood.  You will have moved to another area and stayed put for years.  I write to you from there and I can tell you that we found employment at the Club for a while and spent many years playing in that same park you found as a kid.  These will be good memories.

While you attend high school proms and college dances with girl friends, you will discover there are other boys who find you “cute.”  You never thought of yourself as cute or handsome so these attentions may seem a bit confusing.  When you get hit on by the younger brother of a close friend, you fear that the world will soon know all about it.  Don’t worry, no one knows.  At least, I think no one knows.  Other boys travel through your life, but none stay.  I think that is largely due to your stubborn attitude about most things.  I guess it is less so from where I am at now.

You will come to believe, perhaps rightly so, that your various groups of friends, and various lifestyles, will not mix well so you make sure they don’t mix at all.  This is a talent you picked up when you were very young.  Within these several groups, people only see one side of you and may believe that is all there is.  It is a defense mechanism on your part and I must tell you that in the long run, it is not beneficial.  You are solidly convinced right now that you are doing the right thing, but people will leave your life not knowing who you really are.  That will make you sad.  It is a hard time to be open, but I am convinced your friends will stand beside you, even as they do now.  Would you be surprised to learn that your closest friends after college and for many more years to come are mostly from your high school days, both from your class and a few that followed?  When you finally let them get to know you, they remain your close friends.  You will also make new and younger friends right about now.  They will be great friendships, perhaps because they really know you.  I guess I am not sure about that, however..

I would like to warn you that after high school and college you will make a lot of stupid mistakes.  You will invest times in meaningless friendships and all for the wrong reasons.  Dare I tell you of the beating you will take for who you are and the scars it will leave on your face and your spirit?  You were not going to have your class portrait taken for graduating from NIU because it was soon after, but they convince you to come.  Your face will be bruised and battered from what they would now call a hate crime.  The photographer tells you that you can reject all the pictures and you are convinced you will.  I am glad to tell you they come out OK.  We would call it photo shopping now but you will know that they did a great job of air brushing the pictures.  I still don’t know exactly what that process is but it worked well.  I do not think my words of caution will do much good since I know you so well.  Would you steer a better course if I showed you the way?  I fear not, since you remain stubborn.

Despite the mistakes and the down times that will follow, I need to tell you this one very important thing.  It gets better.  Those three words will almost be a cliché by the time you get to where I am now, but it is true.  You will find many around you who will say the same.  It is the only thing I can tell you that matters.  I can not alter your course, but I swear to you that it get better.  Please believe me.

Your future friend,

Rich

Learn to hate

“You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear…”

Small children will generally play with anyone and anything they find.  They do not know about hate and fear until they are taught.  Another three-year old is just another three-year old, unless an adult grabs him away and admonishes the child not to play with the other child because he or she is “different.”  That can mean many things to many people but passing along hate and fear is what society is good at doing.  If it was not good at it, then why is there prejudice and hate?  The three-year old can learn to become the schoolyard bully by the age of 8 if given enough instruction.

Teaching fear and hate does not need specific lessons or a handbook.  Adults can simply pass it on through mean jokes, name calling and hateful talk amongst one another.  Kids will get the idea real fast who they should hate.  They want to fit in with their relatives and the social circles they find themselves in, so they will quickly learn to mimic the hate and name calling they hear.  By the time they are teenagers, they might be so full of hate, they are able to beat someone to death.

‘You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear…”

Perhaps mom or dad will be quite pleased when they learn their little Johnny can repeat some of the evil jokes they themselves have told.  It might be amusing to hear their boy ridicule someone he met at school that is different.  They may feel a sense of pride that their son is just like they are.  This only reinforces the prejudice and hate.  Everyone wants to be accepted for who they are.  Imagine the good feeling a child can receive when they realize that parroting back the hatred they hear brings joy to the adults around them.

“You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade…”

There are a whole variety of things that children can be taught to hate.  I could put quite a list here if I think about it long enough.  It’s not just skin color or different eyes, it might as well be hair color, or glasses or clothing.  We can type, or should I say stereotype, just about anything.  Maybe if you just sound a little different you are someone to hate.  Your speech might indicate you are from another part of the world or the country or perhaps just another part of the city.  If a child learns early enough, he/she can hate a wide range of people.  It has to be done early, however, before a child learns to think for himself.  If you wait too long, the child may learn to rebel against the hate.  He may end up to be one of those teenagers who brings home different types of friends.  He may speak about peace and love.  He may join alliances at school that promote tolerances.  He may also be bullied
rather than be the bully.  What would some parents ever do with a child like that?

“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!”

When I was in high school our class put on the play, “South Pacific.”  It is the 1949 musical about fear and prejudice on a south Pacific island in World War II.  When it seems nurse Nellie can not love a Frenchman on the island because of his colored children, she can not explain why.  It is just something she feels.  When the Frenchman comments to a Lieutenant that he does not believe these feelings are born in you, Lt. Cable replies, “It’s not born in you.  It happens after you’re born.”  He then sings the song “Carefully Taught.”  I thought the song was way ahead of its time, even decades later when I first heard it.  Emile de Becque who left his homeland to escape prejudice tells the lieutenant, “This is just the kind of ugliness I was running away from.  It has followed me all this way.”

The play was an important lesson for me.  I had already started to learn the damage of hateful jokes and hateful people.  I guess many of our generation did learn the lesson, but apparently not enough.  Prejudice and hate continue to get passed down.  High profile hate crimes, hate crimes legislation and Public Service Announcements can not begin to eradicate the hate and fear that begins in the home.

I thought all about these things during this past week when I realized that the anniversary of one of the most brutal hate crimes of our times had passed by on October 12th.  It was 1998 when Matthew Shepard was beaten bloody with a 357 Smith and Wesson, “pistol whipped,” and left in a field to die.  The sheriff of Laramie, Wyoming, tells the story of the crime, not for sensational reasons, but because it needs to be told.  Matthew was one of those people who was different and consequently, others were taught to hate him. What was different about Matthew that brought out the hate others had learned?  Matthew was gay.  He was also a young man who should have had a long life ahead of him.  Hate took that away.