An Open Letter to Teens from Michael Callahan, Co-Founder & CEO of After School

February 2, 2016

I’ve never been what you would call “normal,” especially in high school. I had spiked hair, glitter under my eyes (because I thought it looked awesome), super bright clothes, and wore socks on my arms. I told people that I looked this way because if it made people smile or laugh, then I had done my job. I was different, and to me, different was beautiful.

Michael Callahan Picture

As a teenager, I learned that not everyone thought being different was beautiful. Some people would have an immediate hatred towards me just because of the way I looked. I remember locking eyes with another student across the classroom who was about twice my size. He mouthed “I’m going to kill you.” After school, he found me, threw me down on the ground and spit in my face. This was one of the first of many times, and I eventually got used to people spitting in my face.

I considered myself lucky because I had someone to talk to through this. I had been dating a  girl almost the entire time through high school. We were very close, or as close as two teenagers could be who lived 15 miles apart and went to different schools. We’d spend every night talking on the phone, helping each other through our problems.  

I shared with my girlfriend a story that I have never told anyone else.

When I was 5 years old, I was taken advantage of sexually by a neighborhood kid who was older than me. I was too young to understand the situation, and too scared to talk to anyone about it. By talking through this situation with my girlfriend, I was able to put it in perspective. For the first time, I realized that I could control how this situation would impact my future, even though I couldn’t change my past.

My four-year relationship with my girlfriend ended badly. The summer going into my senior year of high school, my girlfriend attempted to commit suicide. I went away to a summer camp, and that was the furthest either of us had been from each other since we had started dating. Me being around other people while she was alone was really hard for her and led to depression. One night, she hung up the phone on me after saying “I’m going to kill myself.” I panicked being three hours away and not knowing what to do. If I called the police or her parents and she didn’t go through with it, I knew her life would never be the same. But, if I didn’t do anything and she committed suicide, nothing else would matter. I was able to get a hold of a friend of hers who lived nearby and I told her that she had to go to her. An hour later, I went from being the saddest I had ever been to the happiest. I got a phone call that she was still alive. Over the course of the summer camp, however, she attempted four more times.  

To me, everyone went through these types of problems. My closest friends had to handle things just as tough. They dealt with alcoholic parents, witnessing a teacher die right in front of them during class, eating disorders, parents being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and a male friend being forced to pose with a bra on while a priest at the Catholic school I went to took pictures of him.

It is no doubt to me that many of you have gone through things far worse.  One thing that helped me a lot was to imagine my life as if it were a story.  Your past may already be written, but YOU get to write your future.  The reason why this perspective is so important is because unlike your past, your future is only limited by your imagination. So write the most amazing story for yourself. No one can stop you from changing the world, curing cancer, or becoming the first black woman president. When you do, those things you went through as a kid will be nothing more than a footnote next to your great achievements.

We can’t control the things that have happened to us, but we can control what we do about them. This is why we created After School — a place where you can be yourself, get help with your struggles without fear of being judged, and make someone smile.

Stay positive and stay strong,


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