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You Don't Belong (And That's OK)

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 Bridget Hodder, co-author of The Button Box, which just came out at the beginning of this month.


Hey there, Past Me!

Is it okay by you if I project myself backward in time and talk to you about the difference between fitting in and belonging?

I hope so. Because-- here I go.

So much of what you're struggling with right now, as a kid and as a teen, is how hard it is to fit in with a culture where you don't really belong.

Why don't you belong in your middle-class and surprisingly well integrated California beach suburban high school? You know already: it has to do with your upbringing.

Your father loves kids, but he works a lot at his job. So you've been raised by a stay-at-home mom who's an immigrant, whose first language was not English, and more importantly, whose outlook on the world was shaped by things you have yet to understand. War. Genocide. Fear. That's why your mother and grandparents had to flee to the U.S. And the imprint of that trauma will never leave them, or anyone in your family.

Bridget Hodder as a teen

They brought with them a culture that doesn't really exist anymore except in their hearts. Your mother braided your hair tightly as a child, teaches you to be respectful and quiet around adults, and still makes sure you always wear a delicate cotton undershirt beneath your clothes. The walls of your maternal grandparents' home are hung with so many Old World paintings, darkened by time, that it looks more like a quirky little museum than a house. You can drink wine at dinner, if you want to (which, yeah, I know: you really don't, because it's gross even when they rave about it).

But at school, everyone seems united by an unspoken set of customs you can't quite figure out. They are not into cotton undershirts or quiet knuckling under to authority, and they have no interest in classical art. As for drinking wine at dinner...alcohol, to them, is a forbidden fruit that exists for the purpose of getting drunk. It's an essential element of a mysterious thing called "partying" that everyone wants to do on weekends except you. The last party you went to, you ended up catching the popular girl's vomit in your hands, because the party host's parents didn't know what was going on in their house, and wine-cooler puke on the floor would be a dead giveaway when they got home.

In fact, let's dwell in that icky experience for another moment. Remember how you demanded in disgust, "Can I get some help here?" while a wide-eyed bunch of 'partiers' just stood around and let you handle the situation? Yeah, I remember it, too. In that moment you realized that they were still children, while you were somehow already an adult. Young people like you, raised with the hyper-vigilance that comes from knowing the world is not really a safe place, grow up too soon.

That was the moment you accepted the truth in your heart: you would never really belong. And you realized, you didn't actually have to.

That choice to not belong was okay, honey. It continues to be okay.

Retreating from a destructive social scene and escaping into reading, writing secret diaries, making friends with other cultural non-belongers and dreaming of someday moving to Mexico to become a famous, glamorous and shiny telenovela screenwriter was actually the right call. (By the way, that telenovela script you want to send to Telemundo to begin your brilliant career? SEND IT. You will regret forever that you didn't. You could be the next Caridad Bravo Adams!)

Why is it okay for you to give up on fitting in? Because the effort involved in fitting in is endless. The goalposts are constantly moving. Doing what others are doing, so you don't stand out, isn't even a real goal.

In fact, it's the opposite. It will waste your time on people-pleasing and make your sense of self as fragile as one of your grandparents' gilded Italian vases. Go ahead and stand out! Be outstanding!

Honey, if you're going to have goals, first you'll have to figure out what really matters in your life. And then, while you're pursuing your goals...ding! You'll look to your left and right and realize you truly, deeply belong with the people who are by your side, working for the same thing.

You're going to get there, darling.

La neta.

--Bridget Hodder

Bridget would like to offer her deepest thanks to Brené Brown's Atlas of the Heart for its valuable insights.


About The Author: Bridget Hodder is co-author of the new middle grade book "The Button Box," with Fawzia Gilani-Williams. Prior to writing, Bridget spent decades as a reading and communication specialist, working primarily with young people with learning disabilities. Like Ava in "The Button Box," Bridget is Sephardic. She is also the daughter and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors.


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