The letter below is part of an ongoing series featuring letters from authors to their teen selves. If you're a published author who'd like to participate in this series, we'd love to have you. Just click here and let us know you're interested. Today's guest is Barry Eisenberg, author of Primal Calling.
To My 13-Year-Old Self,
You moved back to Queens just in time to celebrate your 13th birthday. Living in Baltimore for four months was stressful for you, but eye-opening for me. The experience has lived in me for a lifetime, although perhaps you would have preferred to forget it.
During the summer before seventh grade, Dad invested in a restaurant in Baltimore. Until then, you had lived in Queens, NY, after moving there from the Bronx when you were a toddler. In retrospect, it seems that you just kind of existed rather than giving thought to much of anything, neither happy nor sad, just there. But being uprooted to live in a new city, you instantly felt homesick for that existence, however empty it might have been. Your older siblings, both young adults, would not be joining you.
You, Mom, and Dad moved into a newly built townhouse in a suburb of Baltimore. School began just after you settled in. On the first day, all the kids gathered in the schoolyard, waiting for the doors to open. Everyone seemed to know each other. They also knew that the chalk numbers on the asphalt indicated class assignments and that you were supposed to line up behind your class number.
A couple of the boys on your line asked if you were new. You nodded. Then, one asked where you were from. “New Yawk,” you shyly replied, which, to your confusion, was met with a few giggles. “You talk weird,” one of them said. Being noticed was bad enough but being noticed for being different was the worst possible thing. Even though you felt that they were clearly the ones with the accent, you were the one teased for speaking strangely.
You discovered you were adept at deflecting the teasing with a smile and a knack for changing the subject. What worked best, though, was being invisible, slipping under the radar. But it still hurt, so you were always on high alert to avoid the harsh glare of the spotlight. You always prayed the teacher wouldn’t call on you and, somehow, she must have sensed your trepidation, because, mercifully, she bypassed you when calling on kids in class.
Do you recall what rescued you? Basketball tryouts! As part of the gym class, all the boys in seventh grade were required to try out for the school basketball team. Had it not been mandatory, there’s no way you would have gone. After all, extracurricular activities, especially if they were unsupervised, were prime opportunities for tormentors.
Well, it turned out that one of the best things about growing up in Queens was that boys played basketball 24/7. So even the least talented among you was well-practiced. Although your skills were about average by Queens’ standards, here in the Baltimore suburbs, they were stellar. Some of the boys dribbled with two hands (unheard of in Queens!) and passes to teammates could go astray by yards. Although you were the best player in this group, you held back, not wanting to call too much attention to yourself. Who knew where that might lead?
You had no interest in being a hero. The objective was to be invisible. Once your basketball prowess was established, there was no more teasing about your accent. You didn’t feel cheerful about this. Just relieved. And you were constantly worried that something might trigger the mockery.
As for your teacher, Miss Stallnaker, I still think about her fifty years later. The crossing of your paths would turn out to be far more important to you – to us – than you could have ever known at the time.
Barry at twelve years old