Monday, November 19, 2012

Dear Teen Jess

In honor of the release of the book Dear Teen Me, Erin L. Schneider asked some of her YA/MG writer friends to come up with a six word memoir-version of a letter to our teen selves. Pop over to her blog to watch the awesome video she put together! (Her giveaway is over, but her post is still awesome.)

I shared a picture of myself from high school along with my message to Teen Jess, and I figured that here on my blog was a great place to explain it all in a little bit more than six words. (You guys know me...brevity has never been my strong suit.)

High School Jess
This picture was taken at the USA Nationals dance team competition in Cypress, CA. (Strangely enough, the hometown of my future husband, who lived down the street from where this photo was taken.) When I sent it to Erin for the video, I told her it was from my junior year, but as I looked at the picture more closely and I noticed my hair, I realized that it was really from sophomore year, and, as happy as I look in this picture, I was actually truly miserable this day. And most days.

I tried out for dance team in high school because all of my friends were doing it. My high school's dance team was amazing. National champs over and over. Traveling to Japan year after year for world finals. Amazing dancers and beautiful girls doing awesome things. We all wanted to be a part of it.

I'm not really much of a dancer. I love to dance, but I'm not that great at it. (What I came to realize a lot later is that I love to perform, to be on stage or be in front of a crowd. That's why I love dancing so much even though I'm not that great.) Especially at fourteen, when I tried out for the team; I was close to six feet tall already, and I was a gangly, awkward mess. All arms and legs and no grace at all. I wasn't really a natural dancer.

But somehow I made the team.

I felt special. And I was thrilled to be doing this with my friends, starting high school already a part of something awesome.

I came to find out a little later that it was a mistake that I made the team. They were calling off the numbers of the people who made it and they accidentally called mine. But by the time they realized the mistake, it was too late. I was on the team. They couldn't kick me off.

But they could make me want to quit. And they did.

I didn't quit, even though the advisor made me feel horrible. Always. She mocked me. She made fun of me in front of the team. She never let me perform. She kept me on the sidelines at football games and competitions. (I realized this picture was from sophomore year because my hair is straight instead of curly...because I didn't perform at this competition because she wouldn't let me, so I didn't have to bother doing my hair like the rest of the team.) She made sure I knew I was never really supposed to be a part of this group.

But I didn't quit, even after all of that. I wanted to be with my friends. I didn't know what to do with myself if I didn't do dance team. So I stayed a part of this group that so obviously didn't want me, that made me miserable almost every day, because I was so worried about losing my friends and about losing myself somehow.

Finally I quit after the end of my junior year. After three years of this treatment. One of my best friends had graduated. Two of my other good friends had already quit the team. My tight group of friends was breaking up. They were moving on without me, even though I had stayed in this situation that made me unhappy just for them.

My senior year I used my free elective to sign up for Repertory Theater, the advanced drama class. I got the lead in the fall play at school and then later I got a major part in the spring musical (where I also got to do my fair share of dancing). Finally, my senior year of high school, I left behind this awful group and my awful advisor and this thing that made me so sad, and I actually realized I could have fun doing something I enjoyed. Crazy.

(The first book I finished, AVOIDING DRAMA, is about a girl who is kicked off of her high school dance team and finds herself hanging out with the theater kids. I am nothing at all like my main character, Chelsea, but, obviously, my own situation inspired her situation.)

My second year in college, on a whim, I went down to Disneyland and auditioned for a part in their annual Christmas parade. AND I GOT CAST. Disneyland paid me to dance in their parade. Do you know how satisfying it was, after my horrible experience on dance team, to be able to say I AM A PROFESSIONAL DANCER RIGHT NOW, SUCK IT YOU HORRIBLE ADVISOR WHO MOCKED ME. Oh was satisfying.

So, my advice for Teen Jess is this:

I wish I would have learned to make myself happy right away in high school. To pursue theater, where I was good at it and I loved it. To not worry that it wasn't what all my friends were doing, because I could make new friends. To follow my own passion and my own joy and not spend so much time worrying about other people because they SO. DON'T. MATTER.

What advice do you have for your teen self?


  1. UGH, what a terrible advisor! That's awful. But I totally know the feeling of clinging desperately to a group that doesn't want you around--that's a big part of why my advice to my teen self was about chilling out! But awesome that you found your place to shine, landed a plum gig at Disney, AND used the whole thing to inspire a book. (A book that I totally want to read, BTW!)

  2. Jess, it continues to amaze me that there are adults out there, like your advisor from dance team. It's individuals such as this, that missed out on something in their life, so they have to take it out on innocent teens such as yourself. That poor woman is probably STILL advising some dance team, some where, bossing kids around because she thinks she can - but look at all that YOU'VE accomplished because of it! In hindsight, it not only forced you to not give up in an incredibly uncomfortable situation, but it also made you realize there were better things you could be doing with your time.

    Thank you so much for sharing this letter to teen Jess - your six words are SO important for everyone to live by. STOP. CARING. WHAT. OTHER. PEOPLE. THINK. Six words right there, that can change someone's life.

    Thank you so much for being a part of this amazing project - and thank you for allowing me to share your photos and six words of advice, with the world! I think it turned out pretty spectacular - and it's all in part, to great writerly friends like you - so thank you!

  3. I want to travel in time so I can punch your advisor in the face right now. (And I am a person who believes in nonviolence.) I remember that feeling of desperately trying to be part of a group. I wish I could tell teen me to relax and be herself and stop trying so hard to fit into other people's expectations.
    It's pretty awesome that you were a professional dancer at Disneyland (love that place!).

  4. I remember when you were on dance team in high school, but I had no idea how miserable you were, or how you made the team. I cannot believe that advisor! How could she not let you perform, if you were on the team? I guess your school did things differently than mine. (By the way, I tried out for poms but didn't make it.) If she wanted you off the team so badly, then why did they let you join again for your sophomore & junior years? Didn't you have to try out each year? I am glad you finally quit and joined theater. I remember when you were in the musical & I was in Alice in Wonderland, and we sent each other our pictures from the shows. :)

    I really, really want to read AVOIDING DRAMA. I know I would love it.

  5. My stomach is tied in knots reading this. An advisor's job should be to help kids find their strengths not make them miserable. I'm glad you finally found a place to shine. Sharing an experience like this will help others realize there are many doors of opportunity if we look. Thank you.

  6. Ugh. I hate that horrible advisor for you! Talk about someone who had no business "advising" impressionable high school students. Part of me is glad you had this experience because you obviously grew and learned because of it, but man... Reading about it broke my heart. And yeah. I'm insanely jealous that you were in a Disney parade. That's pretty much my secret life's goal. :)

  7. Bullies suck, but it's just that much worse when it's an adult, someone in a position of authority. What a terrible thing to have to bear as a teen. Thanks for sharing your story with us, Jess. I'm so glad you found something that you loved in the end. :)

    And Disney?! Love that place!

  8. I´m sorry Teen Jess had to go through this! That advisor sounds all kind of wrong...And I understand your feelings of trying to fit it, and not lose friends. I´m so glad that you managed to find something that enabled you to really smile :D :D :D

    And wow, you got to be in a Disney parade???? I knew I found you amazing from the get go for a reason :P

  9. I am SO behind on my google reader due to NaNo that I just read this and OMG I can't believe that adviser. What a horrible experience you went through... but it just makes me love your book even more.