“Hairspray” Director Adam Shankman On Forgoing “The Jewish American Dream” For His Own

"Just be happy. Don’t worry what anyone else thinks."

This letter is part of our inaugural editorial series, “Letter to Myself,” in which we asked 40 remarkable queer people to write a note to their younger selves.

Dear Young Adam,

Here I sit, looking with wonder at a picture of you at the ripe, wizened age of 3 years old. You’re wearing a costume. A doctors uniform to be specific. All crisp and white with a toy stethoscope to complete the ensemble that seemed to symbolize the great Jewish American dream for your grandparents. “My grandson the doctor” always seemed like the greatest thing I thought my grandma could brag to her Mahjong club. How happy that would make her. But those words aren’t your destiny, and ironically, those words turned out never to be important to her (or anyone else for that matter.) What words were important, above all others, were, “Just be happy. Don’t worry what anyone else thinks. They’ll get over it. Just please, my shayna punim, be happy.”

Those words as it turns out, are going to be hard fought for, and you will have to endure a great deal, and suffer, and win and lose, and lose some more…but because you are so so very strong, and you are…you will get there.

Be kind always, Young Adam. As much as it seems impossible to believe, people’s problems are almost always with themselves and very seldom with you, though they will take any and every opportunity to lash out at you and punish the world around them. You will do it, too, so don’t judge! Be forgiving. That is the best we all can do in that moment. Just like you, they are simply surviving the best ways they know how, and working with the tools they have. This is all heady stuff of course, but never mind all that. Just take a breath, and forgive people who seem terrible (and more often than not, this will be an irritating challenge). They aren’t trying to be.

It’s true, sometimes life will seem terribly unfair. But no one said it wasn’t going to be—and hope against hope—it’s life, and there will be good days and bad days. Do your level best to focus on the good parts. They will feel like sand sometimes slipping through your fingers, and the bad will feel like mud sometimes, hardening around you, but this is the journey. Getting dirty is part of it, and the more you dig in, the closer you are to the treasure. The strange part is—spoiler alert—the journey, as it turns out, IS the treasure, so dig away!

Express your feelings, and when you don’t feel good, just tell the truth to someone. Vulnerability will be your greatest strength in life. You won’t be alone! Everyone feels alone and afraid! Your kindness, and good intentions do not display weakness, though they will make other people uncomfortable at times. They are cynical. Something you aren’t going to become, so it’s not worth our time talking about it. You’re going to be mystified by how that all works out, but be happy. It’s a better look on you than the other.

Also, you don’t need to lie. It turns out, as impossible as it seems, people will in fact like you for who you are, so knock it off! It’s a terrible habit, that you will shed way too late in life, and I get it: Life is scary. People are scary. Everything is scary. Or is it? You’re going to find out that when you are honest and you will be surprised at how so much of what seemed so terrifying is all in your head. It’s just a feeling, and a feeling isn’t a fact. Remember that. It’s important. Perhaps more important than anything.

Oh! Except for this:

Be kind and gentle to yourself, sweet boy. There will be dark days, and you will make mistakes, and you will hurt people, and you will be hurt, and you will fail and you will succeed, and you will celebrate love and you will lose love, and you will feel terribly alone, and in the end, it’s all okay, because you are lovely, and decent, and ultimately want the best for everyone and deserve the best for yourself, whatever that may mean. You are not a freak, you are a little shining star in a galaxy where there is room for all of the stars, and all of it is what makes this whole experience called life rich and full and interesting. Give yourself a break, and don’t listen to those cruel ridiculous voices in your head. They aren’t your voice anyway—if they were, then who are they talking to, for crying out loud? They’re talking to YOU. You aren’t the voices. You are the listener. So when they get loud, politely say thanks but no thanks, and move on. It’s hard. REALLY HARD sometimes, but I promise you, of all the muscles you will be working out throughout your life, that really is the most important one.

I’m so proud of you, little man. Your face is so open and full of hope, and promise. Never let the light in your eyes dim. I promise to hold onto your optimism, and you get to have my experience, because, as it turns out, we are both us! Stay sweet, little angel. You’re going to be just fine. Better than fine. You’re going to be great.


Adam Shankman recently published his second YA novel, Murder Among the Stars.

Read more letters here.

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