satin ribbon in hair

Come On, Girl. You Can Do This.

“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.”

Post Scripts.

+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.)

+Two cute and affordable sweaters for fall: love the sleeves on this and the pointelle of this.

+Stuart Weitzman OTKs on sale.

+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.

+In select sizes, this darling sherpa coat for little ones is only $24. Love this sherpa bomber for boys!

+Such fun and festive evening shoes for winter! (Something blue for a daring bride?)

+If you are into these Simone Rocha chain-embellished flatsyou are welcome.

+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.

+Things that mattered to me at 18.

+Something in the remembrances above reminded me of how language can fence us in and out.

17 Comments

  1. Oh, your writing is beautiful. You capture the inner thoughts of a teenage girl so perfectly. So much longing and performance and earnestness. I hope someday to read a novel you’ve penned. Perhaps even beginning with a girl this age…? (A girl can dream!)

    1. Thank you so, so much, Annie. I actually have been working on some fiction and am strategizing on how to roll it out…stay tuned πŸ™‚

      xx

    2. Oh and PS – “longing and performance and earnestness” — YES. You nailed it. That’s 100% the headspace of a fourteen year old girl.

      xx

  2. Jen, as always you are able to capture the perfect essence of an almost-universal feeling for teenage girls! I transitioned from public to private school in 8th grade and I will NEVER forget the insecurity and longing from those first few weeks and months. I remember looking around wondering how everyone inherently knew to get the same backpack (LL Bean with embroidered initials, of course) and the same New Balance sneakers. I am similarly tender-hearted at the vision of myself curled up in my bottom bunk bed with the school photo directory trying to map out all the cliques, and how they ranked in terms of popularity. As the mom of two girls I live in fear for when those early teen years come!! And I can only pray I am raising kind, considerate daughters who would be like “miller”– instinctively welcoming to anyone outside the fold. My oldest started at a new pre-school this fall, and joined a class that was mostly together the year before. Those first few playdates were AGONY for me to watch her eagerly run up to circles of kids that didn’t know her and try to befriend them, especially after the last six months of solitude. I’m so thankful that two weeks in she seems fully integrated but I have come to deeply understand the notion that parenthood is wearing your heart on the outside of your body. Thank you for sharing this story with us and giving me all the feels! Hope you are well!

    1. Hi Gina — so good to hear from you! Ah the LL Bean backpack! I forgot about that. Is that still in/acceptable? Haha πŸ™‚

      I hear you. I want to raise a girl who will include others! I am confident you will — you are such a warm, empathetic person! You will for sure lead by example.

      xx

  3. Unrelatedly, I have been eyeing/obsessing over those SW tweed combat boots for weeks now!! Trying to decide if it’s worth a purchase, when I’m unlikely to give them deserved opportunities for socializing & wearing around town this winter…

    1. Ugh they are SO good! I hear you. I am drooling over both those and the Kirkwood Casati ones…hoping one or both will be marked down in the coming weeks, making it an easier trigger to pull!

      xx

  4. Echoing other commenters – I had such a visceral memory reaction to this too! Also went to an all-girls, Catholic school (albeit in New England), where I knew absolutely nobody on the first day. I had that same nervous-excitement in absorbing new classmates, wondering where I would fit in for the next four years, especially when those early days are so dependent on those that share your class/lunch/free period schedule. Reflecting now, it’s interesting that your (and my) school had dress down days during the first week – the entire premise of uniforms, in their equalizing, seems more important during awkward introductory periods!

    1. Totally agree on uniforms! So odd that we’d have free dress on the first few days. Maybe the thought was that free dress would help people feel comfortable during those first few days? I really don’t know!

      In some ways I’m glad I had those interactions — though cringe-worthy. It sounds like many of us went through the same thing and ended up tougher and possibly more empathetic on the other end.

      xx

  5. This brought me right back to 9th grade as well, even though I attended public school β€” oh, the mirror talks! The preppy clothes that were de rigueur among the popular crowd! Etc. etc.

    I remember wearing a butter yellow twinset from J.Crew on picture day with a chain necklace that an upperclassman described as “kind of Gucci” and I was so thrilled. Haha!

    Love that sea witch mask for your Ursula costume (haha!) and I, too, have been reaching for that Everlane oatmeal fleece sweatshirt in recent cooler days (though mine is a bit different? It’s not raglan and has no ‘x’ at the collar … hmm!)

    xx

  6. I cannot imagine going to a new school with unfamiliar peers on the first day of high school! Little Jen was so brave πŸ™‚ My public high school was fed by two middle schools so I knew at least half of the kids going in. Also, your memory is AMAZING. I can’t recall a single specific detail from my first day of high school. Although I’m sure flannel was involved, and possibly knock-off Timberlands. Apparently I was heavily influenced by both grunge and TLC in 1994 πŸ˜‰

    1. You sound VERY cool in your flannel and Tims. I know it’s because I’m nostalgic but I have a soft spot for that whole vibe, even though it is SO different from my personal aesthetic. Like, Winona Ryder in a flannel overshirt? Yes.

      xx

  7. Oh memories! I do feel like despite there being groups of closer friends, we all had friendly relationships with each other and I appreciate that.

    If you’d rather a non electronic version of the above for Hill, you can make a busy board. I asked my dad to do so when we replaced a bunch of our door knobs in our house and I was looking for things to do with our old ones. Something like this

    http://www.running-from-the-law.com/2013/08/diy-lock-and-hinge-board-for-toddlers.html?m=1

    1. 100%, Shannon – I feel like our classmates were all so amiable and easy to get along with. It was not the Mean Girls vibe at all.

      Thanks for the tip on the busy board!! I actually saw there are wooden ones (by Melissa and Doug, etc) available pre-made!

      xx

  8. Omigosh. This brought me right back. I VIVIDLY remember wondering “where did they learn these things?”, having that same self-coaching session in the mirror, and receiving similar, unexpected warmth from a confident, extroverted peer. And maybe I wasn’t the only one whose first week also involved an emergency laundry session (with bleach) to make those polos a gentler shade of yellow – a fun one to explain to my mother. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane this morning!

    1. Yes! The bleaching of polos! Haha — such a strange thing but so important. I think all girls/teens feel socially anxious heading into a new school, but I feel lucky to have gone to Visitation, as all of the girls there were very friendly. Looking back, there was really nothing to be afraid of. xx

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