the smell of my desperation has become a stench

Twenty years on

Last Friday I drove to a high school about 45 minutes south of here to give a speech to a group of student body representatives about the importance of certain nonprofit work. I can’t remember the last time I set foot on a high school campus, and when I entered the lobby and saw the swarm of teenagers lugging heavy backpacks and gathering in talkative groups in between classes I felt a certain sense of…well, it wasn’t nostalgia. No. I’d call it relief. A feeling of release, actually. I wanted to yell, “Hey! Who here is preparing for the SAT?” And then before anyone could figure out what was going on scream, “NOT ME!

Jazz hands included.

My experiences in high school and college were relatively intense, probably much more so than the average kid. I took grades and studying and tests so seriously that I was in a constant state of unease. Which isn’t much different from what I’m experiencing now, but I far prefer this stage of my life, as much as it doesn’t look like what I thought it would look like. I’d never want to go back and relive those agonizing, insecure years, as simple as they were in comparison to raising kids and running a business and paying stacks of bills and insurance premiums. That I never again have to take another calculus final is a blessing I acknowledge every day.

Also, thank god someone pulled me aside and suggested I get my eyebrows waxed. Adulthood, you are so wonderfully less awkward.


I know those kids are wondering what their futures will look like, and as I passed their huddled bodies in the hallway I realized there is no way to articulate to them the varying twists and turns ahead of them, some exhilarating, some devastating, almost all unforeseen. And they will one day be twenty years out of that environment looking at a 17-year-old wearing a backpack and remember what it was like to be consumed with what outfit they were going to wear the next day to the point of laying out three different options the night before. That was the simplicity of their life. Except their memory may now be a little fuzzy because they’ve been up since 3AM with their four-year-old and they just remembered that their nine-year-old is supposed to give an oral presentation this afternoon.

This morning was Marlo’s first day of preschool, and maybe that’s why she got up so early and wouldn’t go back to bed, but I was so tired by the time I got her to her classroom that I found myself more than a couple of times staring blankly at a wall, my head jumbled with a scrolling list of to do items that in that moment seemed insurmountable.

And then I thought, if my high school self could witness this exact scene, could see the bags under my eyes and the endless tedium of a regular day, she’d certainly prefer that stage of her life, she’d cling to it like a raft. And I guess that is the irony of this, that as simple as I had it, as those kids in that hallway probably have it, as much as I never thought my 38-year-old life would resemble what it is, I’d never switch places. I’d never go back. I’d never trade this unease for hers or theirs, and it’s all because of those twists and turns. I’d never want to relive a moment of time when I didn’t know what I know now.

And I’m so goddamn happy that my outfit isn’t even in the top ten most important parts of my day.

  • Clare Golemon

    2013/09/09 at 3:16 pm


  • Sam

    2013/09/09 at 3:18 pm


  • LisaCrazyAdventuresinParenting

    2013/09/09 at 3:22 pm

    Heck yeah! Although, I’d love to have my high school body back. Heh.

  • Mona (Moxie-Dude)

    2013/09/09 at 3:24 pm

    I would NEVER want to go back to the “good old” high school days. The pressure. The self-doubt. The not knowing . . . sounds exactly like a yet-unidentified illness.

  • The Absent Minded Housewife

    2013/09/09 at 3:25 pm

    My husband teaches high school so I get to show up in that zoo on occasion. You know, I didn’t think at the time that I was as vapid as they appear to be, but now I realize I was damned close.

    They definitely have better hair these days.

  • Sarah Wicker Kimes

    2013/09/09 at 3:34 pm

    The only part of high school that I miss is the security I felt in my own body. And maybe it’s because I played soccer so I was really active, but I never worried about my weight or size or how eating taco bell four days a week would affect me. I rocked my high-waisted acid washed jeans with pride. I really didn’t think about whether or not I was skinny or fat until I got to college.

  • AGomoljak

    2013/09/09 at 3:38 pm


  • Gloria

    2013/09/09 at 3:45 pm

    I definitely wouldn’t want to go back either, but no way would I characterize that time of my life, or most other teenagers’ lives, as simple. No, they (generally) don’t have to worry about bills, but there’s all the rest of it: the fear of being different (especially hard for a lot of gay kids), fear of being bullied, pressure to have sex / drink / use drugs, the horrible insecurity that goes along with figuring out who you are as a person, etc. For me, the worst part of being a teenager was the lack of control I felt over my own life.

  • Jess

    2013/09/09 at 4:00 pm

    I’d never want to go back either, but I do miss the simplicity of it. I’m only 23, and don’t even live on my own yet, but there is STILL so much uncertainty ahead of me. At least then, I was blissfully unaware.

  • Amy

    2013/09/09 at 4:18 pm

    Totally agree, and have said the same many times. Even though my high school years were great fun and I still keep in touch with many of my friends from then.

  • Jo DeBell

    2013/09/09 at 4:20 pm

    You posted this exactly when I needed to hear words like these. Minutes ago I found out that I won’t be even eligible to apply to graduate schools in my field because of a screw up my sophomore year of college. I’m wishing so hard to go back and slap that 5-years-ago self and tell her to buck up, get over her (pretty huge and life altering) issue and go get some better grades… but I wouldn’t have healed emotionally and physically as well as I did. I sacrificed my education career (because no one talks about how easy or beneficial it can be to take a semester off) for my personal health, and yeah it fucking hurts to abandon the goals I’ve been working for since that event, but I’m going to learn so hard from this and move on and be great at something else. Maybe not putting Dr. before my name like I’d dreamed, but something else that will be so much more amazing that I can even fathom right now.

  • ginavalley

    2013/09/09 at 4:28 pm

    I would never want to give up what I know now, either. I’m sure my high school self would be shocked by both some of my mistakes and my triumphs, but I’m still glad I am where I am.

    High school was much harder and much easier than parenting and wife-ing and business-ing. I wouldn’t want to go back.


    I ‘d love to have my high school self’s body!

  • Meg

    2013/09/09 at 4:33 pm

    The past year has been incredibly difficult for me, but I realized while walking the dog the other night that it’s still better than my teenage years. I’m sure some of the relief has to do with proper medication and/or treatment, but, wow, being a teenager was hell. Absolutely I prefer the hardships of adulthood (including unemployment and divorce) to those of adolescence.

  • Crystal-lee

    2013/09/09 at 4:50 pm

    I have no desire to go to that place in time. It was fun, reckless and at the time, I felt infinite and unstoppable. The only thing I miss is the confidence I had back then in myself. What I’d really love to do is jump back and tell all of those bitchy mean girls what I really think even moreso than I did for fear of being cast out. My goal in highschool was to be nice to everyone and I think I achieved it. Even though now there is uncertainty with jobs, what will happen with my kids as they grow up – there is a security in adulthood that you just can’t understand as a teen. I don’t think my 16 year old me would understand some of the choices I made but I’m glad I made them, even the ones that caused some major suckage for awhile.

  • Teal

    2013/09/09 at 4:58 pm

    You look so…Mormon in that picture! The hand sewn collar is a nice touch! But I see a bit of a rebellious, hip-hop soul in those Salt & Pepa earrings you’re wearing. 😉 Your hair was amazing, though.

  • Sarah Close

    2013/09/09 at 5:15 pm

    I don’t know if you’ll find this beneficial at all, but for what it’s worth you may be able to go to grad school after all. Many grad schools are open to students who perhaps did not perform as spectacularly as would be hoped in undergraduate school after they’ve gained some significant life and professional experience. Combine that with above average GRE (or whatever style test is required in your field) scores, and you may yet achieve your dream.

    Additionally, you could try getting into graduate school in a related (less intensive) field and transferring credits later on as many schools have easier policies for transfers than they do for new admits. Just a thought.

  • kmpinkel

    2013/09/09 at 5:28 pm

    I’d never go back without knowing now what I didn’t know then. Just think if you could go back now, with knowledge in place. How do you like me now? BAM!

  • C'est la vie.

    2013/09/09 at 6:10 pm

    The hair and eyebrows were perfectly fine for the early 90’s, Madonna brought those eyebrows into style. Even from the perspective of 2013, those aren’t the things I’d pick on. It’s the earrings and serviette collar that, erm, weren’t my style even then. 🙂 In my 80’s high school years, I had a regular hair style and make-up I wore daily, and one day decided to mix it up, going au naturel, so to speak, completely forgetting it was picture day – imagine 70’s shag with no product or make-up. Everyone was “what the hell?” I did the same thing in sophomore year, except just changing the style to one I never wore again. I scratched out that picture in my yearbook, but now wish I hadn’t, as it wasn’t that bad. C’est la vie.

  • estaire

    2013/09/09 at 6:18 pm

    Oh, Amen! Well said! I would NEVER want to go back to those years when I cried and cried and cried for months on end after my boyfriend split up with me. Oh the agony! Thank you for sharing your experiences so eloquently. Each of us has had the same experience at that time in life to some degree or another. Thank heavens we all grow up!

  • Stephanie Reidy

    2013/09/09 at 6:25 pm

    Crazy to look back and think how grown-up and worldly I thought I was in high school. Man, I didn’t know shit!

  • Jenn from much to my delight

    2013/09/09 at 6:25 pm

    I can’t begin to imagine the flood of weird feelings I’d get if I stepped into a high school at this point in my life, but I really enjoyed reading about your experience of it. You’re such a captivating writer, and I always find myself relating so well to your posts, which I almost never get from other blogs I read.

  • Debra

    2013/09/09 at 6:50 pm

    High School. There was nothing simple, easy, carefree or innocent about that shit.

  • Kim Rowell

    2013/09/09 at 8:17 pm

    Even with the eyebrows you were beautiful. And still are.

  • Lynn

    2013/09/09 at 8:54 pm

    I had a hell of a time getting into grad school as well, mostly because of all that time I spent sleeping though Sociology and college level remedial math my freshman year. I found a program that was willing to work with me based on life experience, essay and the last 60 credit hour grades of my undergrad career.

    All that just to say NOT to give up. You might still get the chance to be great at whatever you wanted.

  • MB

    2013/09/09 at 9:12 pm

    The larger the collar the closer to God.

  • Jamee Dyches

    2013/09/09 at 9:33 pm

    Almost every twentysomething I know is using eyebrow pencils to make theirs look like yours do in that photo! You had Cara Delevingne brows before Cara did.

  • noL

    2013/09/10 at 3:04 am

    Ha! Or when I spent hours of the week making sure my nail polish matched the shirt, that matched the hair accessories, (even the toe polish that was covered by socks!) I would not trade this for a nano second of that time. Well put.

  • Wellington Chic

    2013/09/10 at 6:20 am

    My daughter just started High School this year and it’s bringing back sooo many memories from my own High School days. I’m fortunate that I did really enjoy my time at School even through all the ups and downs of teenagedom. I just hope I have built good foundations through her life to enable her to navigate through this time herself and pop out the otherside still as the amazing person she is. Thanks for posting this.

  • francescafinejewelry

    2013/09/10 at 7:41 am

    I absolutely loved high school. It was a heck of a lot easier than raising three kids as a single mother with no childcare help, a father who only saw the kids when the mood struck him, and running a business. Thankfully the kids are grown now and I breathe easier. But high school was a piece of cake compared to what the future held.

  • Kristen Elmer

    2013/09/10 at 9:31 am

    I second (or third) not giving up and getting some work experience. Try to get a job and stay involved in your field even if it’s not the position you’d want right now. Unfortunately now because of said semester you’re going up against students that didn’t go through that… but add a couple years of real world experience you’ll be on top of the pack! Godspeed 🙂

  • Polly Cole

    2013/09/10 at 10:17 am

    I don’t know… those eyebrows are actually pretty amazing. Truly.

  • Tinalicious

    2013/09/10 at 10:28 am

    I wouldn’t go back either. There are some things I wouldn’t mind changing–especially the fact that I thought daily that I was fat. And yet I wish I was as fat now as I thought I was then. Oy. But being a mom and grandma now–and having the semi-smarts I have now compared to then? Yeah, I wouldn’t trade this for anything.

  • Jen Wilson

    2013/09/10 at 12:57 pm

    I do so wish, though, that I could pull the 17-year-old me aside and give her a little chat, tell her a bit about what kind of impact the decisions she makes today have on her future. And I’d do this *before* she got pregnant.

  • Jen Wilson

    2013/09/10 at 12:57 pm

    ps. Sending you a giant useless internet hug, because September is a jerk.

  • Heather Armstrong

    2013/09/10 at 2:09 pm

    Thank you. Thank you so much.

  • Guest

    2013/09/10 at 5:52 pm

    Thanks for the support, ladies 🙂 Things are already looking up. Also, it’s kind of great to get rejected for free instead of hundreds of dollars and time and energy later. I’m going to take the next year to get experience in my field, and blow away the competition in the next application cycle.

  • Jo DeBell

    2013/09/10 at 5:53 pm

    Thanks for the support, ladies 🙂 Things are already looking up. Also, it’s kind of great to get rejected for free instead of hundreds of dollars and time and energy later. I’m going to take the next year to get experience in my field, and blow away the competition in the next application cycle.

  • cattail722

    2013/09/11 at 1:26 pm

    Thank you. You took the words right out of my mouth.

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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