Four times a year, we ask our readers to write about the impact recent stories have had on teens around the country. In spring 2023, we had a range of responses from writers connecting to stories about family, addiction, generational trauma, and finding one’s voice. Congratulations to our winners and be sure to apply for our next contest for summer 2023.
Lynbrook High School (CA)
Tiddles and the Broken Shell: With Time, I Learned to Speak Up for Myself
When I was in middle school, I was afraid of everything: change, judgment, and speaking up for myself. Similar to how you describe Hershey’s impact on you in your story “Hershey & Her Pink Castle,” my pet tortoise, Tiddles, showed me that the world isn’t something I need to hide from. When he was afraid, he had his own pink castle: his shell.
Every day I wished I could be him, and hide away in my shell whenever anything scared me. Caring for him gave me responsibility, purpose, and a sense of control in my life when I felt like everyone had authority over me. I understand how scary it is to speak up for yourself, but speaking up for something you care about makes you forget you’re even doing it.
Middle school was like being trapped in a cycle of being controlled by people, but simultaneously getting told to speak up more. I was stuck like no one understood how I felt. But I saw myself in Tiddles. He was shy and spent most of his days hiding away.
I remember the first day I let Tiddles in the backyard to roam around; he loved it. His little legs carried him through the grass, across the concrete, and over piles of dirt. He showed me that trying new things and exploring outside my comfort zone was exactly what I needed to do to find happiness.
After years of reflecting, I concluded that confidence takes time and practice, and the world isn’t so scary once you figure out how you fit into it. The best advice I would give to my past self and anyone struggling with speaking up is: to be patient with yourself, because you will find your voice, and it will be beautiful.
Midwood High School (Brooklyn, NY)
Apologizing and Forgiving My Father
I connect to your story “Forgiving My Father” because I know how challenging it is to grow up with a father who wasn’t always “fatherly.” My parents also went through a divorce when I was 2. My sister and I were constantly lugging our belongings back and forth.
The system wasn’t too bad for a while; my dad and I had a pretty good relationship when I was little. He’d take us to the beach, read to us, and cook for us.
However, everything changed when I was 7. My mother got diagnosed with stage 5 cancer.
My grandmother took us under her wing, while my father did everything to help my mom. Unfortunately, his and my family’s efforts didn’t save her.
When she passed he put on a brave face, but after a year his emotions hit him like a bus. He became consumed by depression and became a shell of who he was.
Being so little, I didn’t understand the sudden change. He hardly spoke or moved. He’d get extremely upset and sometimes aggressive if my sister and I weren’t affectionate with him. His bottled up emotions would explode onto us.
Similarly to how your mom urged you to have a relationship with your father, my grandmother kept reminding us that we’re his only source of joy. I’d apologize, but “sorry” wouldn’t fix him.
As time passed, the depression morphed into a dozen other conditions. In 2022, his conditions became far more severe. He lost about 90 pounds and was skin and bones. I’d visit him in hospitals and his home but it was too late to form any relationship.
He passed away Nov., 22, 2022. A candle with a picture stands on my dining room table; it’s like I’m eating with him. During meals, I forgive him for not always being present and apologize for not being appreciative enough.
Academy of American Studies (Queens, NY)
Religion Does Not Substitute for Parenting
I don’t doubt that I’m only one of many people to relate to your story “Burdens as an Adoptee.” In fact, the farther I scrolled, the more the words on the page seemed to me like they could very well be my own. Though I am not an adoptee, your story of rebelling as a response to an oppressive religious upbringing, your parent’s dismissal of your poor mental health as “not even really sick,” and the feeling of living a double life really struck a chord with me.
I don’t think parents really realize what exactly ‘Bible-thumping’ and emotional abuse in general does to their child until it’s too late—if at all. Being raised with religion and toxic “traditional” ideas has impacted every aspect of my life and personality—some of it positive, but most negative.
It’s scary to think that I would be a completely different person if my parents, and my parents’ parents, never picked up a Bible, but I have been slowly coming to terms with it. As immigrants from a generally conservative and Catholic country, it is not my parents’ fault that they were raised with the ideas that they were, but it is on them to right their wrongs rather than remain oblivious. It still upsets me to see my parents blissfully unaware of what they’ve done, but while I’m not quite at a place where I can prioritize myself every time, I get closer to healing every day.
I’ve found that it’s easy for me to get swept up in my own experiences and let myself believe that no one understands, that no one else’s parents are as crazy religious as mine, etc. but stories like yours bring me back to the realization that I’m not alone. For that I’d like to thank you—your vulnerability has helped me feel a little less crazy.
10th Grade, East Duplin High School (NC)
Breaking the Cycle of Abuse and Addiction
I connected to your story “I Am Not My Inheritance.” Smoking addiction also runs in my family. I was only 3 when I considered our trailer being shrouded with nasty gray fog “normal.” Whether I was in the car, out for dinner, or visiting my grandparents, my parents never resisted the urge to light a fresh cigarette.
The smoke continued to belittle me whenever my mom’s epilepsy, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder became the center of my family life. She started telling us stories about our intermediate family watching us through hidden cameras. My brother and I thought it was preposterous; it was impossible for a camera to fit through the skinny walls of our trailer.
Despite our beliefs, my mom continued to blame us for “listening to the cameras and microphones.”
The voices my mom heard made her do things in the name of “justice.” She made me lie about being raped by my uncle, she twisted the story of my grandma passing away into a murder, and she assaulted my dad for “drugging her precious children.”
The smoke was always there. I was depressed, anxious, and suicidal, wholeheartedly convinced that killing myself was the only way out of this torture. After being dismissed from a domestic abuse shelter, I realized we needed to break free from this cycle.
Today, my mom and I see a therapist. My mom also takes medication for her mental health problems. She’s taken accountability for her actions and has promised to my family to never put us through what she’s done ever again.
Although I cannot fully forgive her for what she did, I’ve navigated through the smoke and learned a valuable lesson: I am not the abuse, depression, or torment my mom put my family through. I am inspirational, courageous, and strong; I am Georgia.