Lil Nas X’s single, “Montero (Call Me by Your Name),” flaunts his queerness.
In one scene of the music video, he twerks on a muscle-daddy devil in nothing but Nikes and a pair of briefs, his red braids bouncing. Born Montero Lamar Hill, Lil Nas X introduced the song on Twitter with a tender letter to his teenage self:
Every year, in the diverse public high school where I taught, my students wrote letters to their younger selves. My initial inspiration for the writing prompt came from The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to Their Younger Selves, a collection edited by Sarah Moon and Celeste Lecesne. Like Lil Nas X, young adult authors such as David Levithan and Malinda Lo send love to early, closeted versions of themselves. The letters are sweet and encouraging — had they been delivered, they could have changed their recipients’ lives.
I should know. In 8th grade, the word “gay” caught on me like a burr, prickly and impossible to shake. Someone scribbled “faggot” on my math project that hung on the bulletin board. My house was vandalized, too — more than once. Despite my comfortable life in the suburbs, I lived in fear. I had no role models. I would have given anything to hear from a future self who was out, proud, and even sometimes in love.
Instead, I spent eight years in the closet.
I have found that the exercise of trying to imagine what your younger self needed to hear is therapeutic. It offers an opportunity to apply necessary salves to old wounds.
It’s also clarifying. Especially when we’re young, everything can feel like our fault. We blame ourselves for things we couldn’t control. Plus, we don’t often understand how oppression acts on our lives, which means we can mistake the political for the personal. This opportunity, however, affords the benefit of hindsight. It allows us to better understand the struggles of our youth and to place some of them in the context of larger forces at work — heterosexism, for example, but also racism and poverty.
In early iterations of this lesson, which I first taught as part of a sexuality unit in my creative writing elective, I had my students read excerpts of The Letter Q as mentor texts. Once they wrote exemplary letters of their own — and about many parts of their identities, not just sexuality — I began to assign my former students’ letters instead, and I migrated the lesson to my senior English class. I loved to be able to say that what’s on the syllabus came from someone who sat in that desk, right there, last year or three years ago. It suggested that if they could do it, you can too.
I still remember when Mia shared her first draft of “Tinkerbell” in 2017. The kids in her class — finding our usual snaps insufficient — whistled and clapped, so in awe of both her courage and her writing chops. Mia ultimately won a gold medal for her letter in the national Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and I taught it every year since.
In “Tinkerbell,” Mia explores how many of her identities — poor, Black, butch, asexual — overlap and evolve over time. She writes to her kindergarten self on the day the state returned her to her family. She admits that life will be tough but insists that she’s tougher. She explains that she’ll push dumb boys out of trees and stop trying to wash the black off her hands. That she’ll try dating boys first, then girls, before finally coming out, one day, as asexual and aromantic.
“We’ll make it,” she promises at the end of the letter. “You just have to take it one Tinkerbell light-up sneaker at a time.”
In class, I have students read the letter quietly to themselves, with an eye toward lines that stand out and techniques they might like to emulate. I then ask them to share some of their favorite moments so that we can hear them out loud.
I call on Roger, who reads, “You’ll shun half of your race, refusing to even look in mirrors. You’ll slowly start an obsession with washing your hands: soap, hand sanitizer, lotion, repeat. Soap, hand sanitizer, lotion, repeat. To you, at first, brown will mean dirt. But you’ll eventually realize that brown is the color of wood, and you are a tree, sprouting out from the cracks of self-hate.”
“Thanks, Roger. What do you like about it?”
“It’s a metaphor for how she hated herself,” he says. “And I like the repetition with the hand washing.”
Tatiana reads, “‘Your parents find out.’”
“Yes, that’s a powerful moment. How come?”
“It’s dramatic,” she says, “since they find out she has a secret girlfriend.”
“What else do you notice?”
“It’s on its own line.”
“Exactly,” I say. “Remember that we talked about setting off lines like that as their own paragraphs for drama or emphasis.”
I keep a running list of Mia’s successful techniques on the board: figurative language, repetition, one-sentence paragraph.
Gabriel reads a paragraph toward the end of the essay, when Mia’s asexuality finally dawns on her: “After months of Google searches and talks with wire-frame girl, you come to a conclusion. The words bubble in your throat like nausea. Your mind spins and spins, and it’s like you’re back on the swing ride at the amusement park. (You still love the swing ride at the amusement park, don’t worry.)”
“There’s so much to love here, Gabriel,” I say. “What worked for you?”
“I like how she calls her friend ‘wire-frame girl’ in the letter. And the joke about the amusement park is funny.”
“And notice how she couched that joke in parentheses. Steal that technique! Make funny asides that your younger self will appreciate.” I add to the list on the board.
“I loved the last line,” Dominic says. “It just ties everything together so perfect. She’s telling little her that she’s going to survive all these bad things that will happen and be proud of who she is.”
“I love that,” I say. “And what about those ‘bad things’? Why do they happen to her?”
Janessa wonders, “She’s had a hard life?”
“But why is that?”
Dominic again: “Because of who she is. She was in foster care, she’s poor, she had to deal with racism, and she wasn’t a stereotypical girl. And then she realized she’s asexual. Like, that’s a lot. I get it.”
“Well said, Dominic. That’s something to keep thinking about.” I pivot back to Mia’s craft: “What else about that last line?”
“It’s where the title comes from,” Jada says. “But you don’t know why it’s called that until the last line.”
“A satisfying surprise, right?”
After I solicit lines that most resonated with students, I transition to a discussion of the overall structure of the letter.
“This isn’t a typical personal essay,” I say. “How is it set up?”
Roger: “As a letter to herself. In kindergarten.”
“Yes — so, what’s the point of view?”
Jada: “Is it second?”
“Excellent,” I say. “First person is ‘I’ and third person is ‘she,’ but this letter is different. It’s ‘you’ this and ‘you’ that. And what about the tense of the verbs? Was Mia writing in the past, present, or future?”
Roger says, “She wrote ‘will’ a lot, like ‘you will do this’ and ‘this will happen.’”
“Very good,” I say. “That’s the future tense. Mia knows what the future holds because she lived it. She’s giving her younger self a window into that future.”
I create a separate chart on the board to identify Mia’s choices about structure: letter to specific grade, second-person point of view, future tense. I find tense and POV consistency to be one of my students’ biggest struggles, so it’s often something we circle back to in revision.
I conclude our discussion of Mia’s letter by having us think about Mia’s purpose. “Team: Why did Mia write this letter?”
“Like Dominic said, she wants her younger self to know things will be OK,” Avery points out. “At the end of the letter, she writes about her friends who accept her for who she is.”
“And it’s funny,” Janessa says. “She wants to make her younger self laugh a little, like about how she still likes the swings at the amusement park. It’s not all bad, even if it is hard.”
“Is it just about her younger self?” I ask.
They pause. Roger says, “I guess it’s for her, too. She can remind herself she’s doing good now, after everything she’s been through.”
“And is it for us?” Maranyeliza asks.
“Like, maybe we’ll be OK, too,” she says.
After we discuss Mia’s letter, I prepare students to write their own: “Let’s brainstorm stories we might include in our letters.” I direct students to open the document posted online. At the top, there are four boxes to fill out: moments of confusion, anger, sadness, and joy. The first three categories help students to identify when they could have most benefited from a letter; the last one, to balance the tone of their letters and offer their younger selves hope.
“Try to list at least two memories per box,” I say. “Think back to early childhood, all the way up to now, and consider memories specific to your identities, like Mia did — maybe your race, gender, or learning disability.” Up at the board, I share one memory for each category to help jog students’ memories. I then set them to work.
After about five minutes, I have everyone share one memory from any of the four categories. “If someone says something that you relate to, add it to your lists,” I say.
Many students excavate moments of transition: new school, new house, new country, new parent. There’s what’s lost (a pet, a grandparent) and what’s found (a girlfriend, a passion for photography). They share their struggles, from diabetes to a sexist father, and their triumphs, like finally figuring out the right dosage for their anxiety medications.
“Do you notice any patterns in what you’ve shared?”
“We really went through it,” someone says, which earns nods and chuckles.
“Yeah, what’s up with that?” I ask.
“Growing up is hard,” Maranyeliza points out.
“And it’s harder depending on who you are,” Tatiana says.
“So true,” I say. “And that sucks. Maybe, in your letter, you can clue your younger self in to that unfairness.” I note this on the board, too.
“So, let’s get to it,” I say. “First, start off like you would a letter: Dear Blank. Perhaps you’ll use a nickname that your younger self will recognize, like ‘Dear Cheech,’ or you could include a specific age, like ‘Dear 6-year-old-me.’”
Students address their letters.
“Now, I want you to think about when, exactly, you’d want your younger self to receive the letter. Is there a particular moment when you most needed this support, when it would’ve felt like a lifesaver? You could even start with an instruction, like ‘Screw those kids from recess’ or ‘Stop being a little shit and help Mom pack up those boxes.’”
I find that if they start grounded in a specific memory, their writing is stronger. It forces them to describe the moment of discrimination on the playground or how the cardboard boxes felt heavy in their small arms as they faced eviction.
I set the timer for 15 minutes, then offer a final note: “Remember: this letter is special because you are the only person who knows what younger you needed to hear. Only you know what would’ve helped them. Write that.”
As students start to type, I float around the room. I notice Nico’s stuck. He says, “I don’t know what to write about.”
I say, “Really, Nico?”
“I was a pretty bad kid in middle school,” he admits.
“What do you mean?”
“Now that you’re older and wiser, do you have a better understanding of what made you act out back then? Could you try to talk about the root causes in this letter?”
“Oh, like I could try to say some of the things I’ve learned from my counselor lady.”
“Exactly,” I say. “And you can start with something like ‘You’re in your room after yet another suspension. Listen up.’”
When time runs out, I ask for volunteers to share one of their paragraphs.
Tatiana goes first: “I know you’re confused right now. I know you’ve been staring at waitresses when going to Hooters with Dad. I know how hard it is to fake liking a boy and talking about boys to friends, hoping they won’t find out your secret. I know you’re worried they’ll think you’re strange. I know in your mind you’re saying, ‘I want to talk about girls.’”
Roger reads next, starting with his second paragraph: “I have even harder news to break to you. Dad goes to jail. You are going to miss him a lot, and it will be hard being the only boy in the house, but he will try to reach out to you as much as he can. He made you an S-shaped pillow with your name on it, and you will never get rid of it.”
We snap after each student shares and praise standout writing: a colorful detail or brave confession. I also invite students to see patterns in, and resonate with, one another’s stories. We talk about their shared childhood struggles and about the ways they demonstrated similar perseverance in the face of them. I thank them for their courage.
For students who choose to revise these pieces into final drafts, particularly my seniors who submit them as their personal statements for college, I push them to highlight their resilience and their pride in what they have accomplished.
In “Control,” for example, Janessa concludes her letter about growing up stigmatized for her diabetes this way: “You will fall in love with a boy with bright red hair and get your heart broken. You will jump into a pond at midnight, screaming from fright and exhilaration. You will get your license and learn that the road is your best friend. You will attend diabetes camps and meet friends you still have at 17. You will take a video production class and fall in love with the camera. You will tell Dad about depression, and two years later, you will tell him you overcame it.”
I also encourage nuance. Throughout “You a Girl” (see below), Jada examines sexism from several angles. Take the cutthroat schoolyard, for example: “In 8th grade, you’ll get put on a ‘pretty’ list. Why? I really don’t know. But you know that it will hurt girls’ self-esteem and you could’ve said something to them; you could’ve told them it was wrong, because it was wrong. No girl should ever feel that she isn’t pretty enough, like how you felt in elementary school when those boys didn’t like your thin almond eyes. Girls need to support girls. Remember that.”
Jada later commiserates with her younger self about her Cambodian parents’ double standard for her and her brothers. At the end of her letter, though, she softens with compassion.
In response to the “Montero” video, Lil Nas X’s father texted him his love and support. Unfortunately, we don’t all get that affirmation from the people we love or by society — particularly those of us on the margins. Sometimes we have to affirm ourselves.
I think that partly explains why these younger-self letters tended to showcase my students’ best writing. When students wrote back to their past selves in need, they typically felt proud of how far they had come — and empowered to press on. Their final products, full of vivid detail, often surprised me with their vulnerability and insight. They vibrated with hope.
You a Girl
By Jada Moeuy
You’re not ugly. Stop thinking that. The boys at recess made fun of your thin almond eyes and told you you’re not as pretty as the “popular” girls in school. But so what if those boys don’t like you? You’re in elementary school, and those galaxy Vans won’t fit you forever, so just enjoy being a kid while you can.
In 6th grade, the girls who laugh at you in Sephora are doing you a favor. Take the lipstick off, it doesn’t match. I still give you props for being confident in your own skin. You won’t care what anyone thinks of you, and that’s what I should have held on to.
In 7th grade, when you’re out with friends and it starts to get late, you’ll get a million calls from your parents. Dad’s calling.
“You know what time it is?” he screams through the phone.
“Yes, Pa. I’m coming home soon.” You’ll feel your face burning up.
“Hurry up,” he answers.
“Why can everyone else stay out, but I can’t?” you’ll ask him. You mean your brothers, who always get special treatment.
“Because you a girl. They boys. It’s different.”
Of course those words will hit you like a ton of bricks. It shouldn’t be that way, and you know it. From then on, you stay out late even if it got you punished.
In 8th grade you’ll get put on a “pretty” list. Why? I really don’t know. But you know that it will hurt girls’ self-esteem and you could’ve said something to them — you could’ve told them it was wrong, because it was wrong. No girl should ever feel that she isn’t pretty enough, like how you felt in elementary school when those boys didn’t like you. Girls need to support girls. Remember that.
In 9th grade you’ll get your heart broken for the first time. Your boyfriend cheats on you, and the person who tells you is his best friend. Throughout the year, you string boys along just like how he strung you along. You know it isn’t right to play with boys’ feelings, but that’s how you cope. By the end of the year, you try giving him another chance. You play it smart and remember how he broke you. You won’t give him the opportunity to do it again. He doesn’t deserve you.
You know your worth.
In 10th grade you start dating a curly headed boy that summer. Things will get serious, but you aren’t allowed to date because, as Daddy says, you a girl. You’ll get nervous to tell your parents about him, but they actually aren’t mad — crazy, right?
In 11th grade you will be knee-deep in your studies. You take every chance to improve your grades because this is what you want. It’ll be hard, but you got this. You want to become the powerful independent woman you always imagined you’d be.
Mom will say in Khmer, “Brasenbae anak mindoeng pi rbieb chamen te aneakt svami robsa anak min chaulchett anak te.” You always snap back at her about how it shouldn’t matter if a woman doesn’t know how to cook and that you don’t have to please anybody. Besides, you always helped mom cook when you were little, whether it was peeling the shallots or stirring the pot so the stir-fry doesn’t stick to the pan.
I know you’ll wonder why the old-school stereotype about women still sticks to her like the rice at the bottom of the pan. But, kahbee, she was raised that way, and it’s hard for her to believe any different. It’s OK to be gentle with her and still love her so much. At the same time, you can realize that you will not raise your daughter to think that she needs to do anything to please a man.
She’ll please herself. And so will you. And so will I.
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