To my high school junior,

Each year, these back-to-school letters get more difficult to write. Wanting to capture all that I want to say to you, in as few words as possible, seems like a daunting task. 

Because I know that right now what I write to you seems cliché. And cringy. And like I’m doing too much, as your generation says. 

If I’m lucky, you will skim this letter and probably not read it for real until you’re deep in your adult years, digging through a bin of your old school things I saved for you and begged you countless times to bring from your childhood house to the home you’ve created for yourself.

You will trace the ancestry of these letters, back to a time when I wrote them in pictures before you were able to read words. I used sunshine and smiley faces, wishing you a year of joy and wonder as you learned how to go to school. How to ride the bus. How to tie your shoes. How to make new friends.

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You will open your annual portfolios and recount the points of pride you deemed worthy enough to hang onto over these years that led you from kindergarten to this year filled with what will feel like the beginning of the end of school as you have known it. You will feel pangs of nostalgia as you remember your old teachers, friends who have moved away, moments and milestones that have shaped you into who you are now, and who you are continuing to become.

Tucked in the front of each of those portfolios, you will see each letter I wrote. Wishing you a good school year. Reminding you to be confident and proud of yourself. To be kind to others and also to yourself. To give yourself grace and balance in the challenges that you face. To be resilient and brave. To remember not everyone is going to be your friend, and that is okay. You are worth more than the opinions of people who don’t care to know or love you for exactly who you are.

All these life lessons pour from my heart onto paper, pebbles in a stream of consciousness that I know you will not fully recognize until you are sending your own kids, year after year, through those doors of childhood and adolescence. And you will look on with wonder as you try to make sense of it all. There will be an ocean of words you’ll want to say, but won’t know exactly how to say them all the right way.

This year, my letter to you seems especially big.

You’re not at the end of the road, but you’re just one turn away. You’re feeling stressors and pressures of greater enormity than you’ve felt in the past. I see it in your face. In the way you’re analyzing every decision as if you’re playing the old school game of Operation—one wrong touch of the board and it’s game over. You’re trying to balance work and a social life. Wrought with anxiety over college visits and applications. Trying to academically and athletically pave your path to a destination that is still unknown, yet seems so incredibly important to discover.

I want to tell you that you will figure it all out. 

I want to tell you to slow down and enjoy the ride. To look out the window and wave your hand in the breeze of these last fleeting years of childhood. To let the winds of change blow you in directions you haven’t even thought of yet.

Give yourself the time to just be. 

Do all the things that will help you look back in that rearview mirror and have no I wish I would haves.

Make the mistakes, then pick yourself up and learn from them. 

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Be your best self, but not at the cost of losing all of the pieces that make you whole.

My junior, someday when you open the portfolio that will be stuffed with college acceptance letters and essays and assessments rather than artwork and All About Me pages, I hope you find this letter.  

And I hope when you read it, you remember that you were kind. That you were resilient. That you were worthy exactly the way you were. And that you had a year filled with all of the things you hoped and dreamed of.

I love you,

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Amy Keyes

Amy Keyes is a middle school teacher and freelance writer in St. Paul. When she's not cheering too loudly while spectating at her teenagers' sports, she's running, working out, binge watching recommended series on tv, or hanging out with her dog.

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