Deb Molly Ponders the Limitless Potential of a New Sweater

2012 Debutante Molly BackesSchool shopping was kind of a big deal in my family. A few weeks before school started, my mother would take us shopping for new clothes — new jeans, new shoes, new sweaters that we wouldn’t be able to wear until the weather actually turned cold in another month or two. And we didn’t just go to the boring old mall in Madison; no, we’d go to a fancy mall like the Mall of America in Minneapolis or Woodfield Mall in Chicago, and after shopping all day we’d go to a hotel and swim in the pool and eat at TGI Friday’s.

But while the new clothes were nice, what really mattered was the potential they represented. Every year, you’d have the chance to reinvent yourself. Maybe this would be the year when you finally figured out how to deal with your weird hair, and your new jeans would fit exactly as current trends dictated, and you’d finally look just like the girls in Seventeen magazine, all fresh-faced and hopeful. Or maybe you’d become the outdoorsy girl next door and go hiking all the time with your dog and meet some cute rugged boy who always carried his tattered copy of On the Road because he was, like, so deep.

And maybe a few weeks into the school year you’d admit that, okay, you were never going to pull off the just-rolled-out-of-bed-effortlessly-sexy-bad-girl look, but maybe you’d cultivate your own unique look, and maybe that cute boy who always looked sleepy in Spanish class would finally notice you and appreciate your unique thing, because anything could happen! This could be the day when things take a turn for the amazing! Your life could turn on a dime!

This is why I write about (and for!) teenagers.

There’s something so great about all that newness and potential — and yes, anticipation – that makes for great stories. Your first job. Your first kiss. Your first true love. Your first broken heart. All the waiting and longing and questioning and dreaming, and never knowing — never even being able to guess — what might come next.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m happy to be out of high school. But as an adult, I don’t have too many days when I wake up thinking, “Maybe this will be the day when everything changes!” (More like “maybe this will be the day when I finally manage to call the insurance people to sort out that bill” or “maybe this will be the day when I find the time to re-organize my closet.”) I don’t spend a ton of time wondering about my future, because at some point I stopped daydreaming and started planning. And when I buy new sweaters, I’m pretty comfortable with the fact that the girl who wears them will just be me, in a new sweater.

But every now and again, there’s a crispness in the air that whispers of falling leaves and autumn bonfires, and I find myself thinking maybe this is the day when everything turns amazing.

And then I think I should write a story about that.


What do you remember about high school? A handful of great moments with your best friends, an influential teacher, a crazy party that got out of hand? The best (or worst) first-day-of-school outfit ever? Was there a day when everything changed?

(ps. Because I’m sure you were wondering…. This post was written to a playlist called “Angsty High School” – lots of Tori Amos, Smashing Pumpkins, the Cranberries, Ani Difranco, Dar Williams, Simon & Garfunkel, and the Cure, with a sprinkling of Fiona Apple, Belly, Hum, and the Doors. Viva la 90s!)

32 Replies to “Deb Molly Ponders the Limitless Potential of a New Sweater”

  1. Lord back to school shopping was the best – my folks and I were driving to my 93 year old aunts funeral in August. We took the old back roads to Scituate Mass, on the coast about an hour from my parents’ house. My Mom said, “That’s where Taymor’s was, we used to buy your shoes there.” I instantly recalled a pair of Etienne Aigner heels I’d gotten for sophomore year and how grown up they made me feel when I wore them. I also remember a pair of gray flannels and a soft pink cashmere sweater that made me feel like a million bucks. And a tot, buying a spring jacket always meant Easter was coming. Lots of memories. Thanks!

    1. “Gray flannels and a soft pink cashmere sweater” sound so appealing to me right now! I was just thinking the other day that if I had an unlimited wardrobe budget, I would still choose my clothes based on softness, & thus would probably still end up wearing the $8 Target tees that feel like hugs.

  2. I remember more about taking my own children (all middle-aged adults now) shopping than I do shopping when I was a child. I think we stayed at home and the goods were brought to us. Pre-school shopping was probably the only time my mother had for herself.

    1. I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday, but I remember middle school & high school with frightening clarity… yet another reason I write YA! 🙂

  3. When I was a kid, back-to-school shopping was magical. Mostly the school supplies, though. The paper, the pens and pencils, the binders — talk about potential! I STILL love back-to-school time. Just bought myself three new spiral notebooks, and can’t seem to stop fondling them, fantasizing about what kind of story notes I’ll be filling them with.

    High school was mostly full of awkwardness for me, but I did get involved in theater, which was a lifesaver. It kept me being labeled a total brainiac-nerd, and helped me acquire some social confidence. Mr. Burgess, my freshman year drama teacher, was the best. He and his wife didn’t have kids of their own, so they kind of adopted all the theater geeks and turned us into a big, performing family.

    1. I was also a theater nerd! And a choir nerd, and an orchestra nerd, and a lit mag nerd. Which would help to explain why I could never reinvent myself as the effortlessly cool sexy chick. 🙂

      And school SUPPLY shopping? That part hasn’t changed! I went to Staples a few weeks ago to buy myself a white board & accidentally also bought a basketfull of pretty new pens and folders.

  4. You know what I love most about this post, Molly–well, besides the whole thing, of course–is how you speak about WHY you write the genre you write. I love learning what drives each of us to write what we write–because it is about that experience, that desire for that certain experience.

    I’m with Linda on the theater edge. Theater was my world in high school–and art too, which made me the cool girl to go to comic book stores with among all the cool, hot boys which, FYI, does NOT translate to the girl aforementioned cool boys want to date, but I digress 😉 But I think I was fortunate to have gone to a high school that truly didn’t feel dominated by cliques so my memories of it are very, very lovely. Middle school, however, is a different story. And fortunately, a different post!

    1. Thanks, Erika! And yes, middle school is a whole other beast. I chose to teach middle school because I suspected I could make it suck slightly less for my students, but I was under no illusions that I could make it awesome… though we did have a few really great days!

      And re: the cool girl to go to comic book stores with? Giiiiirrl, do I have some stories, but I’ll save them for when you have us all over for wine & gumbo. 🙂

    2. Well, those guys obviously didn’t know what they were missing, and are probably regretting it horribly now, stuck with un-cool mates as they no doubt are.

      1. Oh, you’re the best, Linda…

        Molly, I can’t wait to hear these tales…and I’m serious about this meet-up thing, wherever, whenever. You bet I’ll bring the gumbo (and the wine and/or beer!).

  5. This is it EXACTLY – “I don’t spend a ton of time wondering about my future, because at some point I stopped daydreaming and started planning.” I always struggled to figure out what changed – now I know. 🙂 It makes me wonder when daydreaming morphed into planning – was it one day, a series of days? High school graduation, the last year of college, the first day of a “real job”?

    I wore school uniforms so I didn’t have much back-to-school clothes shopping but even if I did, it wouldn’t have compared to the school supplies. Notebooks and folders, binders and looseleaf, Trapper Keepers – do they even still make those?! Sigh.

    1. I think it’s an ongoing process, as we accrue successes and figure out how to tackle goals. I spent all of high school writing in my journals about whether or not I could/might/maybeonedaypleaseplease become a writer, and now I look back and think “stop obsessing, stop asking permission, and just DO IT!” 🙂

  6. Further proof that I am still 13 years old is the fact that I do continually think about re-inventing myself. I think we go about it in different ways, but when we change jobs or move or start a new workout program, that’s just our way of trying to start a new school year – or it is for me.

    However, I now sigh in irritation when the fall fashion issues of my magazines arrive and flip through the ads in desperate search of a story. It wasn’t that way when I was reading Seventeen! I think at least I’ve got the ‘sweater does not make the woman’ part down.

    1. Haha, every day for the entire year+ that my book was out on submission, I gasped every time my phone rang, thinking it might be my agent calling to say it had sold. And one day, it was!

      And I’ve been horrified by the fall fashions that look like all the worst elements of my high school wardrobe, all the weird florals and unflattering cuts. *shudder* NEVER AGAIN.

  7. Ahhhhhh! After a rough morning getting the kids off to school, it is nice to reminisce about how much easier it was in high school. (Linda, I have to run off to Staples later today. Want to join me? The homework is unbearable in 5th grade. We need a shoebox of supplies at home just for homework.)

    Aigner shoes!!! Kim, my mm and I used to go to the Aigner outlet shop in neighboring Pulaski, TN. It was such a TREAT! But my mom would never let me wear heels to school.

    I agree Erica, I love hearing how people began writing their genre!

    I would love to stay in high school all day. Do I have to go back to work?

    1. Sometimes I wouldn’t mind going back to hs myself, with so many great teachers working super hard to both entertain and educate you? And we just rolled our eyes and asked “What time does this class end?” Darn kids don’t know how good they have it! *fist shake* 🙂

  8. I’m not going to talk about what high school was like for me because my mother reads this blog and some things need to remain secret for a long, long time.

    Great post, though, Molly. And like Erika, I love hearing about why people write what they do. I too love writing about firsts and the more awkward, the better, because there was A LOT of awkwardness for me growing up. But I don’t think that’s unique to my experience. And I think it’s why so many adults are turning to reading YA these days.

    1. Ahhhh yes, awkwardness. Haven’t grown out of it, myself. Do you ever read Tavi/stylerookie? She’s turned teen awkwardness into an art form.

  9. I loved this post, Molly, and it made me even more excited to read your book. Though I must admit, like Eleanor, my thoughts while reading (aside from “I love this!! This is why I love reading YA!”) were “I was supposed to have stopped doing that???” It seems like every morning I wake up with those today-could-be-the-day thoughts: “This is the day I’m going to figure how to look effortlessly put together.” “This is the day I’m going to be one of those people who nonchalantly passes on the fried calamari in favor of farmer’s market vegetables.” “This is the day I’m going to GO to the farmer’s market. And bring some cute canvas tote bag that totally says ‘I’m hip but also environmentally friendly.'” I could go on. It’s everyday with me. Or maybe every minute! I love the possibility in it all. Except when it feels like a burden, because its so much to strive for!

    That said, I no longer wish upon myself the drama that Joey and Dawson and Pacey had. I used to watch their long-winded teenage angst and think “Why can’t I have that kind of intensity in my life? Everything is so booooring.” Now I wouldn’t wish for that silly creek or any of its drama.

    And I loved Dar Williams. Great throwback.

    1. Agreed — I don’t crave the drama in my own life, but I still like to read (and write) about it! “That silly creek or any of its drama” = gold.

      And yay Dar Williams! She’s going to be playing in Chicago next week…… just saying!

  10. I had pneumonia in 9th grade… out for six weeks and came back wearing a babydoll pink sweater with a rolled neck, powder blue baggy pants that tapered back at the ankles, and pink espadrilles (it was the 80’s — it worked). I knew for a fact as I walked down the halls that I looked amazing, I felt amazing, and I was going to make a huge splash and finally be noticed for the wild, witty, wacky wonder that I was!

    Didn’t happen, but to this day I remember that feeling. It’s why I write YA too. Oh — the very first like of Populazzi is something to the effect of, “This is the day everything will change,” so I’m totally with you on this!

    1. I had one of those outfits! It was a black minidress plus over-the-knee black and white striped socks, white character shoes, a white beret, and obviously an ankh necklace on a super long chain. At the beginning of biology class, a popular upperclassman pulled me aside to tell me that she and her friend liked my outfit, but the general consensus among the popular group was that I was just a little too weird for them. Ahhh, high school.

  11. I hated shopping then and I don’t care for it now. If I could I’d wear board shorts, flip flops, and tees everyday. I also hated high school (I know, I sound like a hater). I was one of a half dozen surfers in a school an hour away from the beach. At my high school jocks were king and surfers were losers. My life began the day I graduated from high school. I do enjoy shopping for surfboards, tropical plants, and tikis for my gardens.

    1. You might like Rob Thomas’s (the Veronica Mars writer, not the musician) book RATS SAW GOD — it’s YA for the stoner surfer set. 🙂

  12. I DID have a day that everything changed-After years of angsty single-ness and one strange boyfriend, I got a huge bouquet of flowers delivered to me in the cafeteria and they were from a Secret Admirer! I really had no clue who they were from, and the rest of the afternoon was spent grinning and taking my flowers to every class (not sure how the teachers felt about that). That was the last day before Christmas break, so I couldn’t spend time at school figuring out who sent them. I called the flower shop and they told me who paid for them-the boy I super-secretly (hadn’t even told my bff) had a crush on! The rest of the winter was a perfect high school romance with sledding parties, holding hands on the band bus, writing “I love you” in snow on his car… We were even Snowball King and Queen! My high school experience was 3.5 years of My So Called Life and .5 years of HSM.

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