02/19/2013 11:20 am ET Updated Apr 21, 2013

A Letter to My Nephew


In 14 quick years, you'll enter high school. It might not seem "quick" to you, but trust me, 14 years is nothing. Regardless, don't sweat it. It will be fine. Even when it's not, even when the air feels so thick it is hard to breathe, know that you'll come out the other end and do great things.

To conquer high school is to know that it is full of a bunch of supposed to's. You're supposed to wear the right kicks, hang with the right cliques. You're supposed to judge people based on ridiculous characteristics, like what lunch table they sit at, the music they listen to, which Breakfast Club archetype they rep. You will feel like clay, everyone a sculptor. You will feel like "cool" is currency and conformity is survival. You will feel alone in this, like you're the only one who is being stretched into someone they're not, made to fit in a box constructed just for you, compliments of the crowd.

Here's the thing, though: You can choose to be you. You can kick conformity and ripped-off notions of "cool" to the curb. You might wonder what the hell "being you" means. It's not an easy thing to pinpoint. Thoughts will come and go, but you get to decide what you think on -- the ideas you value, the values you cultivate. Give yourself the space to reason through your own thinking, develop your own ideas about right and wrong, what success and failure mean, what justice and morality look like. This will help you find your voice. Then use it.

Your mom and dad will also have a say in this. Listen to them. Really listen to them. Listening isn't about hearing or being heard; it's not about being able to recite back what someone said. It's about the music beneath the words; it's about endeavoring to uncover and understand why someone believes what they believe, to let their ideas sit and their words sink in. Put different, your mom and dad are saying whatever it is they're saying for a reason. They've been through this before. They know what it is like to wonder if anyone notices you sitting stag at the lunch table, to worry like hell that you won't have weekend plans, left again to your own devices, to struggle through the distinction between real, honest-to-god friends and phonies.

This is not as easy as it sounds. You'll know what I mean when the tribal divisions form, when the kids you kicked it with in middle school no longer look your way. Here's a secret just for your curious eyes: Everyone in high school is insecure. And this insecurity turns teenagers into monstrous assholes. No one yet knows who they are, much less who they want to be. But when insecurity strikes, when you're vulnerabilities are turned inside out for the world to see, you've got a choice: Work on them and become a better you, or put on armor and go into battle.

My weapon of choice was a quick, acerbic wit. I was what your grandma Mia liked to call a "smart ass." Don't confuse this for an endearing name just because it begins with "smart." It's not. I remember one time I waxed flippantly about some New Balance-wearing, Creed-listening no name. Now, if you've experienced Mia's teacher's voice you know it is not a voice to be messed with. That voice makes the hair on anyone's arm stand at attention. It has a gravity to it that lets you know she's dropping wisdom even if it feels like she's about to drop you. "Think about what you just said," she implored. She paused, then added, "Think about how that would make you feel." It took a few minutes to internalize what she was trying to say, and of course by a few minutes I mean seven or so years, but her point was as simple as it was profound: Try to stand in someone else's shoes and see what they see.

Again, this isn't easy, much as it sounds. We're quick to evaluate what someone says, quick to judge, quick to create difference where it might not exist -- to separate ourselves from one another because the space between is easier to tolerate than admitting that we might be wrong, that we might have more to learn about ourselves and one another.

This isn't you. You're curious about things and people. You can barely talk but I see it in the way you hold a block, rotating it, looking at it from every angle imaginable. You are going to get through high school and go on to do great things. Not because others expect it of you, though high school is full of expectations. Not to gain a bootlegged sense of acceptance or prestige, however motivating in the moment, it is a fleeting feeling. Nah. You will do great things when you feel it in your toes, in your fingertips, when you feel alive being you.

Video games don't count. Turn that shit off.

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