“Lola looks like one of the cherubs,” Miller whispered to Lee, gesturing over to the enormous religious mural in the stained-glass-windowed chapel we were sitting in, the floors around us a mosaic of refracted red and gold and blue. They laughed, and so did I — because Lola did, with her rosy complexion and angelic face, resemble a Rubens angel — and then immediately blushed, because I had been eavesdropping on their conversation and my unfiltered giggle had given me away. Miller turned and gave me a half smile. I couldn’t tell whether it was an invitation or a rebuff.
It was my second day at Georgetown Visitation, an all-girls Catholic high school in Washington, D.C., and I had passed the first as a wallflower. I had nervously busied myself with my locker in between classes and, after a quick and awkward lunch with girls I was too shy to talk to, walked slowly up the hill towards Saint Jo’s Hall about twenty minutes in advance of my afternoon mathematics class. I was brightly aware of my solitude. I had lied and told my mother that the first day had been “great!” — an equivocation I am certain she saw through as she silently glanced at me over the steering wheel with the generous and affectionate kind of understanding only a mother can have for her daughter, on the car ride home. Later that night, in my blue-carpeted, chintz-bedspreaded childhood bedroom, I had stared at myself in the rectangular mirror hung on the inside of my closet door and commanded myself: “Come on, Jen. You can do this. You will talk to people tomorrow.”
In the Chapel the following morning, I had been grateful for the hush. It was a break from the exhausting social contortions I had been maneuvering since 8:10 a.m., when I had willed myself to say good morning to my locker mates, and then to meekly introduce myself to my seat mate in homeroom, and then to ambitiously trot alongside a classmate who had unfolded her class schedule as the bell rang and asked whether I, too, was heading to “Founder’s” (the “Hall” elided from the name in a shorthand I immediately appropriated) next, which I took as an invitation for companionship. While I enthusiastically nodded my head, I noticed she had highlighted squares in her schedule and written in bubbly penmanship “FREE!” to indicate a free period, a practice I then noticed among other classmates and quickly adopted myself, eager to conform with the local ways and to preoccupy myself with something other than my own burning self-awareness during the chatter before class began.
Where did they learn these things, like highlighting free periods in their schedules? I wondered. Older sisters? I had only an older brother who attended an all-boys school, which might explain why I was equally perplexed by the non-uniform uniform so many of them were wearing those first few days of school, which had been designated “free dress days” by the administration, meaning that our school-issued kilts could be set aside in favor of “street clothes.” Yet nearly all of the cool girls — and, of course, it was easy to tell who they were — wore the same thing: short, chino-material shorts in khaki or nantucket red, faded polos — collars flipped up — with alligators or polo players embroidered on the chest, and flip flops. I felt horrifically out of place in the denim skirts and striped baby tees I had selected for those maiden days at my new school. It was immediately clear to me that these girls shopped at J. Crew and Ralph Lauren — not Limited, Too, as had been in vogue at my grade school.
I had been spirited by the reactions of my classmates that morning, though: every interaction had been returned warmly, often airily — in a way that made me feel that my interjection had appeared casual — and usually with a smile. But I was also relieved for the forced quiet of Chapel, where I could relax into my own thoughts. That is, until I found myself sitting alongside three of the prettiest, coolest girls in my class, unwittingly laughing along at their inside jokes. After Miller’s half-smile in my direction, I willed myself to stare at the priest, who was delivering a sermon at the front of the chapel. I strained to remain impassive to the whispering conversation to my right, though I was, of course, wholly dialed in on it.
Just then, one of the teachers leaned over our pew and shushed us sternly, and I felt as though her eyes lingered accusatively on me. All three of my pew mates stiffened, then squirmed, then smirked as soon as she’d left, and I blanched at the thought that I might be in trouble. But then Miller elbowed me and said, loud enough for multiple rows around us to hear:
“Geez, Nurmi, keep it down.” She grinned warmly at me and all of the girls in my pew and a few in the one ahead turned their heads toward me and giggled and I knew immediately that this was the kind of gentle ribbing of the initiated, and I felt elated. I was shocked that Miller knew my last name and thrilled at the thought that some of my classmates might unknowingly assume us to be friends, having observed the casual exchange from a few pews back. As we filed out of the chapel after Mass, I held open the door for her with my elbow as the classmate in front of me had done and she smiled and said: “Thanks, Nurms!” and it is hard to overstate my glee at having a nickname — however unbecoming — coined on my behalf by Miller Galliway on the second day of school.
I think back on my ill-at-ease, fourteen-year-old self, at my outsized and breathless desire to fit in and be liked, and I linger between a cringe and a coddle. I want to tell myself “relax, girl!”, but I’m admittedly impressed — even now, at 36 — by my determination to power through my inborn reserve by reaching out to my classmates when the stakes felt so unbearably high. And I am tender-hearted at my own flailings. I see in them the occasional shyness of my own daughter, who just this past weekend climbed to the top of the jungle gym at the playground and then stood, patiently, her Mary Janes rocking back and forth in balance on the top rung, to wait for a pack of rowdy older girls to clear the area before stepping onto the planks and running across the little bridge with private glee. I wanted to throw my arms around her because I saw a mirage of myself as a child, wide-eyed and quiet and often too-patient for the undeserving.
I am also — and this has never left me — still grateful for Miller’s still-unexpected affability. We never became close friends, but, as with most of my Visitation classmates (actual Visitation grads never refer to themselves as “visigirls,” a nickname other schools in the area gave us and that we, for reasons never articulated but intuitively grasped, spurned), we maintained a warm collegiality that has extended into our thirties, where we occasionally like one another’s photographs on Instagram or read, with interest, about one another’s whereabouts, children, and achievements in the Class Notes section of the alumni magazine from our alma mater.
I think back and note how easy it would have been for Miller to say nothing at all to the wide-eyed, non-polo-wearing, denim-skirted waif to her left. How natural it would have been for her to just nod in thanks at my propping open the door for her. And I am thankful for her shrugging confidence — or, perhaps, her determined show of composure and joviality. Because it is hard for me to believe that any girl at fourteen does not stare into the rectangular mirror tacked to the inside of her closet door and say to herself on the eve of her first day of school: “Come on, girl. You can do this.”
Written while thinking about girls (no matter the age) everywhere trying something new or bearing the brunt of outsidership, to whom I want to say: “Come on, girl. You can do this.“
Names in the remembrance above have been changed to protect privacy, as I’m not sure any of us want to be publicly remembered for things we did or did not do at the age of fourteen. (Except for my own — my maiden name is Nurmi, an inheritance from my Finnish grandfather.)
But thank you, “Miller.”
+Many of my other remembrances of high school are tinged with grief, as one of my best friends from Visitation passed away when we were in our 20s. (Another memory of her here.)
+This kids’ table and chairs set is SO well-priced! Love the blue.
+Now is the time to get organized for a special Halloween for little ones. Mini has decided she wants to be Ariel from The Little Mermaid (currently on the hunt for a cute costume — any recs?), and micro will therefore be Sebastian the Crab (er, lobster…). Mini has also informed me that I will be Ursula (…) so I guess I’ll half-ass it with this, and that Mr. Magpie will be King Triton and I am really hoping I can convince him to go all in with this wig and this trident and crown set.
+This metallic tweed combat boot is SO good.
+In love with the striped sweaters from La Ligne this season.
+Stocking up on little surprises for upcoming car trips / cold weather weekends for mini: this magnetic set looks right up her alley and this looks like Hill’s dream (possibly my nightmare). I am usually into slow burn toys that promote imaginative play but that boy loves things that light up. (He plays with this little piano every single day for surprisingly long stretches.) To be fair, he also loves a lot of open-ended toys like these animal magnets and these blocks, which he lines up very carefully on the railing of his crib.
+These pouches are the kind of things I love to have on hand for a million potential purposes. Most recently, I’ve started stocking mini’s backpack with hand sanitizer, spare mask, alcohol wipes to clean her school face shield, and eye glass wipes for her glasses. This is the perfect pouch for such on-the-go essentials.
+Someone recently asked about blue light glasses and I just came across this spunky pair from a new lens label, The Book Club.
+More of the things you are shopping for here.
+I have been living in this fleece raglan sweatshirt.
+Something in the remembrances above reminded me of how language can fence us in and out.