Co-Authored by Danyelle L. Long
People often laud combat veterans for their courage. I deployed four times into combat zones during my military career and I can tell you it doesn’t take near as much courage as you might think: when I went into enemy territory i wore state-of-the-art body armor, was powerfully armed, surrounded by fellow soldiers, and protected by overhead by fighter jets. Real courage is when you’re a high school girl whose dealt with more than her share of personal tragedy and bullying – and yet ventures alone out into “enemy territory” armed only with a pen.
Danyelle Long will graduate high school in West Monroe, Louisiana tomorrow. I have never met Danyelle face to face, but back in late 2010 when she was barely 11 years old, she and her mom wrote a “Dear Any Soldier” letter that found its way to me in Bagram, Afghanistan. I wrote a polite thank you letter in return, which spawned a series of back-and-forth letters that extended even beyond the end of my deployment. Her letters helped buoy my spirits through some dark days, especially in 2011.
I knew Danyelle had suffered through traumatic and gut-wrenching events in her life and had always admired the way, together with her mom Kelly, that she had pushed through them. What I didn’t realize, however, is how much talent and raw courage Danyelle has also developed as she’s grown into a young woman.
The Library of Congress sponsored a national writing contest called Letters About Literature in 2016. Students are asked to read a book, poem or speech and write a letter to the author relating how the book affected them personally. It’s one thing to overcome adversity within the safe confines of one’s family but another entirely to fearlessly relate her struggles in a public forum.
Danyelle wrote her letter to Veronica Roth, author of the highly successful Divergent series. The letter so moved the judges that she was selected as a finalist for the state of Louisiana. I was so moved by it that I requested permission to share it. I have rarely seen such artistic beauty, vulnerability, tenderness, courage, and outright wisdom in print.
That these thoughts were conceived and presented by a high school senior is simply amazing. For your reading pleasure, the letter is reproduced below, in its entirety, without any editing. I hope that other high school kids find inspiration and motivation to believe in themselves by reading Danyelle’s story.
I sure did.
“Since I was young, I have always known this: Life damages us, every one. We can’t escape that damage. But now, I am also learning this: We can be mended. We mend each other.” - Veronica Roth
Dear Mrs. Roth,
My heart is inspired by works of literary art on a daily basis, but I usually keep the inspiration to myself. However, due to the wonderful story you painted in the Divergent Series, I wanted you to know the impact your words had on me. I have loved many stories and the fictional characters in them, but I have never loved a book like I have loved Divergent. The story of Tris and Tobias carried me through a very difficult time in my life. My heart was filled with joy at the beginning of their romantic relationship, broken at the death of Tris, and healed as Tobias healed at the end of Allegiant. Yet, there is much more to the story of how your book changed me, and I only hope other people are as impacted by your books as I was.
During the time I started reading the Divergent Series, my mother was married to my stepdad, who I loved very much. To make a long story short, he decided my mother and I were not good enough for him, and he left. My situation concerning my biological father was not any better, as he too saw me as a disappointment. The boy I was in love with, left me without saying a word. They had all wanted me to be one thing to meet their standards, and I simply could not do it. I felt broken, abandoned, and guilty. I blamed myself for the way they acted towards me, because it was I who had disappointed them. And yet, in the midst of all the pain, I found Beatrice “Tris” Prior; and my heart felt a little less hurt.
In all of my life, I have never been able to conform to just one standard. Tris could not conform to one faction because of her divergence. Tris carried her guilt inside of her, and I did the same. We were two people who could not be defined in the world, real and literary alike, and on May 17, 2015 as I read the last page of Allegiant, I realized that I had found and lost someone who finally understood me. For the entirety of my life, I have spent so much time trying to be ‘good enough’. I have desperately tried to define myself by other people’s principles and I have failed every time. And just as it did with Tris, every failure brought guilt, and the guilt brought with it the dark abyss of pain in which I almost drowned several times. The complexity of my personality had brought more trouble upon me than luck.
“I realized that I have a bigger purpose, and that I do not have to be defined by anything or anyone.”
However, even with the pain I felt, I have never experienced more freedom than I have after the day I finished the Divergent Series. I realized that I have a bigger purpose, and that I do not have to be defined by anything or anyone. I can be selfless, but I can also be brave. I can be honest, but I can also be kind. I can be intelligent, and I can be divergent. I can be all of these things, and it is okay, because I cannot be one without the other anyway. All of the attributes that I have cannot survive without its sibling. Selflessness and bravery go together. Honesty and kindness and intelligence go together. I do not have to conform. My individuality is okay, and without Tris Prior, I do not think I ever would have learned that.
So, in case you’re wondering, I am able to accept my divergence and my differences wholeheartedly now; and not only am I able to accept myself, I can also accept others for the differences too. And though I was greatly saddened by the loss of Tris in the last book, I was strengthened by her belief in herself, even though she died. I am thankful for the story of Tris Prior and her love for the boy with the factions tattooed on his back. I am thankful for you, Mrs. Roth, for writing this story of hope for myself and so many others. I may forget many things over the course of my life, but I will never forget your message in the Divergent Series. You did not teach me to be brave, honest, kind, smart, or selfless. I already knew how to be all those things. You taught me that I could be all of those things at once, and that it was okay to be that way. You taught me that it was okay to be a human being. I will never forget that. Thank you for helping me realize that I was not a problem because of my divergence, but that I could be an answer. Thank you for having the courage that it takes to stand up. Thank you.
Danyelle L. Long