The back-to-school issue of Seventeen magazine: was there anything dreamier in all of Teenagedom? I can still conjure the smell of it, that combination of glossy pages and perfume samples. Three times as thick as a regular issue, the back-to-school edition was unfailingly packed with girls in bright tartan plaids and chunky sweaters, posing in front of lockers or ivy-covered facades. I pored over it, page by glorious page, lying on the floor of my bedroom and listening to a cassette tape of Madonna. It was the Eighties.
In Southern California, back-to-school weather is crackling hot, which worked for me since I could only afford to shop the clearance rack, and any new clothes of mine would be summer remnants anyway. The one first-day-of-school outfit I can remember consisted of a black-and-white-striped, sleeveless, crew neck sweater; white, high-waisted suspender shorts either handed down or stolen from my sister; huge silver hoop earrings that were wide enough to see your reflection in, and a scrunchie. I was proud of that outfit. I planned it weeks before school started. I can’t remember the shoes, though. I may have blocked them from my memory; I could never get the shoes right. I am still shoe-challenged.
Today I saw a Target back-to-school ad and was hit with a wave of nostalgia so intense it was almost painful. My adolescent self would punch me in the face if she heard me say this, but I am jealous of the kids going back to school right now.
I miss that new-leaf feeling: the discovery of new teachers and new books, new gossip and new crushes. New music in choir—how I miss choir!—and a new round of auditions in drama. I miss the slant of the light between the buildings as the rushing current of students carried me from class to class.
For a moment, I thought I even missed the digital sound of the class bells, but no. What I miss is the schedule and the structure, decisions made for me and enforced by someone else, so I could simply do as I was told, then blame the powers that be for the stupidity of it all. If I was unsuccessful it was only because I was too good for such mundanity.
Of course many back-to-school memories are not pleasant. Every math textbook ever issued to me, without fail, had a penis drawn in it. WHY? Maybe we’d have more women in STEM careers if we weren’t haunted by crudely drawn penises whenever we opened a math book. Just saying.
No, I haven’t forgotten how I hated school—I was miserable in junior high and high school. I remember the bitterness of it, the relentless self-loathing and shame, comparing myself to girls who were skinnier and prettier and more confident than me. Oh wait, I still do that—the difference is that then, those feelings were soothed by the conviction that someday, I would magically be better. After graduation, I would metamorphose into something spectacular, and that would show them!
I was destined for greatness. It was a vague sort of greatness, but I knew it would involve fame: an author, an actress, a singer. It had to be something very high-profile so that every boy who failed to notice my [utterly unexpressed] longing for him would wish he had.
You often hear people lamenting their lost innocence. I lament my lost ignorance. I want to un-know these things:
- Success is built on mundanity. No one is above the grind.
- Boys do not notice you longing for them unless you tell them that you are longing for them, which is an extremely uncomfortable conversation that rarely achieves the outcome you desire.
- If you want to be a famous author, you must actually write things, sometimes years and years of things, before anyone will take notice.
- You can spend all your time and money on being prettier and skinnier but that won’t make you more confident, and being confident takes a level of self-trust that money cannot buy.
Oh, to believe in Seventeen magazine again! I want a new outfit to make everyone notice me! I want a “Can’t-Miss Haircut” and “260 New Ideas for Fall”! I want a Trapper Keeper full of fresh paper and pens, like magic feathers to keep me organized and productive. I want to know, with the conviction of my 15-year-old self, that I am going to do something great someday.
That is nostalgia: bitter with loss, sweet with perspective. I had so much and so little then. I have so much and so little now. Things change, but they stay the same. I still want to be noticed. I still want to do great things. I just need more somedays!
My 46-year-old self clings to this wisdom: today is someday, simple things can be great things, and I am the only one who needs to notice.