How do you feel about the first day of school? Do you wish you could tell your younger self anything about it? On this page, three Black Content Creators do just that — in the form of letters, they share their experiences as Black students in Canada, how they navigated mental health challenges, where they’re at today and more. In sharing these stories, they hope to remind young people that no matter how you’re feeling about your first day of school, you’re not alone.
Kids Help Phone and Wattpad partnered with three Black Content Creators to share personal letters to their younger selves right before their first day of school. Through this collaboration, we hope to support mental health in Black communities across Canada and raise awareness of RiseUp powered by Kids Help Phone.
You can check out stories about the first day of school below!
Rodney’s letter about his first day of school
Rodney is an established author and screenwriter. He has written and produced multiple short films, feature films and web series including a sci-fi adventure.
by Rodney V. Smith
My old high school in Barbados had a saying: Forwards Ever, Backwards Never! I would find out later in life that this was a proudly West Indian motto with deep roots and significance. People lived by this motto. I myself never really appreciated the full meaning of it, but it was always fun to say whenever a challenge presented itself. To be honest, I still use it to this day as a kind of battle cry.
The first day I heard it was of course, the first day of school, gathered with the other 60 fresh-faced kids in their shiny new uniforms. Uniforms that were a little too big on them, because they would eventually grow into them. You know how moms can be. They had all gotten the “treatment” from their moms that morning, making sure the uniforms were ironed, collars nice and crisp, shoes polished. It wasn’t even for photos, only to make sure that us kids looked proper and presentable. I think back to that first day, and you know what I remember more than anything? It was just a momentary observation, but it stuck with me through the years. There were a couple of white kids in that class, and they didn’t look as crisp as the rest of us Black kids. Maybe it was how they wore their clothes, with a different attitude, or maybe it was that they didn’t have to live with the talk that most Black kids have drilled into their heads by their parents.
“You can’t just settle for being good — you have to be better.”
I’d nodded to let my mom know I’d heard her, resisting the urge to roll my eyes because it wasn’t the first time I’d heard it and I knew that it wouldn’t be the last. What I never thought of (and this only comes from hindsight) is that every other Black kid was probably hearing a version of this.
Just think about that for a moment as you get ready for your first day.
Like me, you’re probably not going to get how much is packed into that one statement. There’s a lot of responsibility in that one statement, and as you head into high school, away from the comfortable familiarity of elementary school, it’s going to mean so much more.
It’s not just responsibility, it’s potential and that makes it exciting, doesn’t it? Admit it: you got a thrill from being officially dressed for your new high school. You’re full of this nervous buzzing energy and you just want to explode. You can feel the potential in the air, to make choices and be anything you want to be. It’s different now going into high school, because it feels like playtime is over. You’re no longer one of the big kids, not for a few years. Now it’s real and you’re going to be stepping out of the front door into what feels like a different world.
I could tell you that you’re going to make all of the right choices and it will be a clear path, that it will be so easy, but I don’t want to lie to you. You’re going to do a lot of dreaming and generally just finding yourself, and believe me, that’s OK. Right now in high school is the time for you to experiment and find out what it is that you’re good at. You have to find what it is you want to do. You may suddenly find science absolutely enthralling, or go deeper into your art as you discover new ways to get out the stories in your head. You may even be a writer if you want (and no matter what your mom says, writing can be a real job) and create stories that will go on to become books and movies. Everything is possible. But…
You’re going to know deep in your soul that you’re not starting off at the same level as everyone else. Mediocrity is not an option. Good is not enough, not for you. You have to be better from the start, because you’re going to be judged more harshly, even when the judges don’t know they’re doing it. Your mother knows it — that’s why she tells you over and over, because it’s a reality that she lives every single day.
I could tell you that everything is going to be awesome. I could say that you’re about to make some of the best friends of your life. I could also say that you will adapt to the new class structure and all of the big changes. All of this will be true. Just not all together, and not all at the same time.
You’ve been given the talk before about how hard it is for a Black kid to thrive in the world. Your dad or maybe even your uncle has taken you aside and tried their hardest to tell you how it isn’t easy out there and the sooner you realize it, the better. Reality has been sinking into your worldview and sometimes it has not been a good feeling, has it?
You’ve seen the reports on the news and always felt that sinking in your gut when it was almost always a Black guy as the main suspect in a violent crime. There is also the guilt, when after some horribly violent crime, you secretly cheered that for once it wasn’t a Black guy. And you know that people look at you differently. Even in your group of friends, because you’re the Black kid, there’s that feeling that people, mostly adults, look a little longer at you. There has always been that feeling in your gut that even your teachers in elementary school saw you as the “bad guy.” If there was a fight, you were almost always the main suspect. No matter how much they tried to be “fair,” it almost always happened. Some of the teachers looked at you as if waiting for you to finally lose it.
You’re about to spend the rest of your life fighting for relevance and acceptance, and it doesn’t stop. Even after you’ve proven how good you are, how truly talented and worthy you are, somebody is going to come along and reduce you to a number in an algorithm and say, “Yeah, not good enough.” And they watch you for a reaction, expecting you to take it on the chin like a champ, but… they’re also daring you to show your true feelings and react.
This is going to be high school. Not all of it of course. You will have moments of joy, frustration… you will spend too much time second guessing yourself about if the object of your affection really likes you (they might, so ask them out!). You will also spend more time making up excuses about why you didn’t do your homework, than actually doing the homework. And you will thrive, even while carrying the burden of the responsibility to be better.
I had my school motto to remind me, and you’ll find something similar. Forwards Ever! That’s the battle cry for when things seem their worst and when you’re convinced that you just can’t do it anymore, can’t live up to the expectation of being better. It’s hard isn’t it? But it’s doable.
You will do it, and your mom will be so proud of you, because you rose to the challenge and you carried her words as a part of you.
High school isn’t the greatest experience in your life, but it is a place where you can learn how to adapt to new people and new experiences. You learn how to build a group of friends who can support and help to guide you through the rough times, and who you can also be there for. The classes are there to give you structure and test your adaptability. It doesn’t matter if you won’t ever use calculus in a real world environment, or that in 10 years nobody will quiz you on the dates of that random thing that happened to someone in a history book (I don’t remember either, so it’s fine). What matters is how you take these lessons and shape your worldview so you have an opinion you can clearly articulate. It’s all so you can see how you can change your own small part of the world. You can see how you can be the light that leads the way for all of those who follow.
You can look ever forward to the future and to the hope it can bring.
Nicole’s letter about her first day of school
Nicole is a published author in Wattpad’s Creator program. She has a large fan base across her social channels in addition to Wattpad, and her novels have been published under Wattpad Books and distributed worldwide.
You Will Be OK
by Nicole Nwosu
To my younger self,
As you get ready for the first day of high school, I know you don’t have a clue of what you’ll be getting into.
You’re highly aware that everything from this moment on will be completely different. And with differences comes difficult adjustments, sometimes accompanied by anxiety for the unexpected. However, I think this change is something you might really need.
For 10 years, you were schooled in an environment where you were one of five Black kids in your grade, and the only African person in your grade. I know you felt extremely isolated sometimes when you were in that environment. You didn’t look like many of the other kids. Sometimes there were moments where you were very aware that they didn’t understand what it was like to see the world from your perspective. They didn’t know what it was like to have your type of hair, to have your natural hair in twists or within box braids (especially for Picture Day when someone thought you would straighten your hair like everyone else did). They didn’t know what it was like to be told, “You look like this person,” and the only thing you and that person have in common is that you’re both Black. With many more examples, extreme and not extreme, the differences were huge, and you managed to get through it all even when it felt like your self-esteem was knocked down to the ground. For elementary school, you often coped by reading whenever you felt down, throwing yourself in another world to make you feel better. And in that time, your biggest support system was your mom. She never made you feel like you were any less because you were “different.” Even as you enter high school, her support for you will not change.
But now, your school environment is drastically different as you enter high school. You know the predominant race of your high school is Black and many of those kids, like you, are of Nigerian descent. That’s rare in Canada, even in a city like Toronto. Try not to be nervous. I don’t think I have to tell you that, even though you are. But you’re outgoing. I know you’ll be OK.
Your worries at this time vary if I remember correctly. You’re dealing with a lot in the family department. You’re also worried that you won’t make the basketball or soccer team when tryouts open up (spoiler: you did for both, and volleyball too, in Grade 11). You’re nervous wondering if pre-AP classes are going to be as hard as they seem. You’re not exactly worried about making friends, but you’re worried if the friends you have from elementary school are going to stay your friends through the distance (another spoiler: some of them do, and some of them don’t).
One worry that you have, different from your experience in elementary school, is wondering if you were “Black” enough. Sometimes, stereotypes like how Black people walk and talk get pointed out, especially when you’re a kid… When you seem to act differently in comparison to the rest of the kids in a new community that you enter. Sometimes, you think about it since you grew up in an area where not that many Black kids were. I want to let you know that this stereotype of “acting Black” will mean absolutely nothing to you as you get older. You’ll learn that no matter how you talk, whether you sound “white” or not and the music you listen to (go through those musical phases loudly, you’re doing just fine), nothing can invalidate your Blackness in any way, shape or form. You’ll stop thinking about it midway through high school for a few reasons. One reason is the people you surrounded yourself with. They’ll help you unlearn the idea that you should act a specific way and that being yourself doesn’t make you any less of anything.
In addition, the friends that you’ll make in high school become a big part of your support system. They’re people who easily make you laugh in the middle of class, help you, encourage you and want you to grow as they do too. You still talk to them today.
While people get added to your support system, other methods of coping are added as well. During this transition, you’ll start writing more often. Writing brings you joy. Interacting with people who read what you produce and like what you produce brings you joy. Playing sports also helps, along with all the books you find yourself reading at any given moment. Even though you’ll be busy during high school, you’ll always find time to read and get lost in a fictional world.
And at the centre of your support system will still be the same person it was when you were a kid. The same person in your teens and in your 20s — your mom. She’ll advise you and she’ll cheer you on day by day. So just know it’ll be OK if you make a mistake — she’ll try to help you in any way she can.
Despite the support you have, I wish someone told you this — that sometimes, things won’t work out, and that’s OK. You have an “If I don’t do this, I won’t get here,” mentality. A part of this is carried over when you enter university too, but luckily, you’ll find out that it won’t be the end of the world if things don’t go down the path you initially planned. Just know that somehow, you will figure it out.
There are many things you can look forward to in the future. One, it was a great idea picking the high school you chose. You’ll get the opportunity to learn more about the Nigerian-Canadian experience through many different lenses as well — no longer just your own. Two, you can look forward to publishing your first book and to writing more characters that have traits like you inside and out, and some that are nothing like you at all. Three, you can look forward to university and realizing which parts of science you like and which you despise completely. You can look forward to learning and seeing new things that will blow your mind.
So, finish putting on your uniform, grab your backpack and go. Life will get better. New experiences, challenges and successes await. And trust me when I say, even though you’re nervous right now, you will be OK.
Saint’s letter about her first day of school
Saint is a writer of 2SLGBTQ+ romance, historical fiction and low-fantasy novels. She’s educated in creative writing and enjoys producing emotional stories fuelled by character-driven narratives.
I wish we had the words
by Saint Caliendo
There are a lot of things I wish you had known when going into Grade 8. For example, you’d gain amazing skills in rugby and weightlifting, and the body consciousness you felt being awkwardly tall was only temporary. I wish I could tell you we got better at drawing, but honestly, not really. You’re more of a writer now! You went from drawing superhero comic books at the back of notebooks to writing thousands of words that get read by people all over the world.
I know you’re self-conscious about your spelling and accent. Being in a new school with fancier uniforms and a clique system is why you spend so much time writing and daydreaming. I want to let you know that one day all those things that bothered you will mean nothing. Not the silly cliques, not the people who made fun of how you say “leggings” and not all the stress from being scared that someone will find out that you’re like that.
You have a word for that now.
When you’re a bit older, being queer will bother you. It will bother you so much that you fall behind on your studies, skip going to school and lose the few friends you have. You have your books, though. You write, read and get a hold of anything that features people like you. You daydream. You want to be like them. This is a difficult but fundamental time in your growth as a writer. Writing stories was your therapy, and you poured yourself into it. I wish, however, that you’d reach out to people older who are like you. I wish you had the resources to address your feelings and process them in a way that wasn’t so isolating. I also wish you hadn’t pulled away and hadn’t developed a habit of being secretive. Your friends at least should have known. You lost them, but you reconnected with them when you got older. Yet you missed out on so much time and bonding in middle school and high school. They could have been there for you, and shutting them out had not only isolated you, but hurt them.
I should mention that you definitely don’t want to be a doctor. Sure, you like biology and a bit of chemistry but get worse at them, just like how you couldn’t keep passing math without studying! It will be hard to bring up to your parents, but you eventually do. Though I wish you had done this sooner. You were (and still do have some elements of) a people pleaser. I wish you had worked on that, and maybe you wouldn’t have an ankle that pops because you ran a four-hundred-meter race with a sprain in high school, and of course an exhaustive list of every other little thing you still have to live with today.
Also, it would seem like ignoring the elephant in the room to not bring it up. So, I will bring it up.
You don’t like your hair very much. It’s a convoluted and complicated feeling. On one hand, your mum cutting off your hair is a common punishment. You “grow wings” as she puts it — becoming more confident, more individualistic, sometimes you might even talk back — and then she “breaks them,” cutting off your hair, taking away your phone and makeup, humiliating you so that you are small and docile again.
You know this is not a dig at mum.
There is often a tough but typical relationship in our community between adults and kids. It’s hard to address. It’s hard to rationalize. There is so much shame, self-pity and regret.
But to summarize, hurt people can hurt people.
Your mother was hurt growing up, and then she hurt you. It made your chest swell and your anxiety worse. It contributed to how much you devalue yourself. Your body, your hair, your feelings. At one point, you didn’t want to exist anymore. You wanted to disappear.
Your hair was your enemy, and you would occasionally cut it off in protest — signaling that your mum taking it from you didn’t bother you, and other times you wanted it straight and permed, so the kids at school would stop calling you names, and you would look pretty like the characters on TV or the dolls you got from your father when he came back from trips. I wish you’d read and watched more diverse media. I wish that you didn’t grow to dislike how you looked without really even understanding why. Social injustice is hard to understand when you don’t have the words.
I wish you had the words — the vocabulary — and all the concepts you now understand as an adult.
You’ve tried to run away once before, and another time you’ve locked yourself in the closet and bathroom multiple times, just hoping no one will ever find you.
These were troubling coping mechanisms.
There’s a lot that I wish you had done differently. But I do not blame you for it — try not to blame yourself for any of it. I wish you’d had the words. The support. The community.
I could wish for it all, but it really doesn’t change much.
Saint, I want you to know that despite all the mistakes you might have made, you turned out just fine, and you’re happy that you’re alive and well. I want you to know that one day you’re going to graduate, and one day you’re going to move to a continent across the ocean and start your life afresh where you are happy, queer and confident.
You will have an amazing, thriving community of other people like you. They come in all shades and colours. Many are African women like you. Also, you know some from your middle and high school days. You would look at them, and they would look at you, and you will acknowledge yourselves fully for the first time as queer people.
There are a lot of mistakes that were made, but there are also a lot of things you did right. Don’t forget that. Be proud of how far you’ve come, and how you made it through the other side. Embrace your intuition and foster your confidence. I wish you all the best.
Where can I find more stories from people in Black communities?
You can tap on the stories below to explore more first-person experiences from Black people in Canada:
Kids Help Phone would like to thank Wattpad and the authors of these letters for sharing their content about hope and the first day of school with us and young people across Canada!