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Very First Day

Meeting Jen was a gift of a lifetime. May my daughter be so lucky on her first day of high school

By Cassie Bustamante

I’ll never forget the time I was vacuuming my staircase and unexpectedly found myself in a puddle of tears when Taylor Swift’s “Fifteen” filtered through my earbuds for the first time in years. I stopped cleaning but kept the vacuum running to drown out the sound of my weeping.

You take a deep breath
And you walk through the doors
It’s the morning of your very first day

Thirteen years ago, the fresh-faced country music star dipped her toes into pop music with the release of her second studio album, Fearless, which is how I first discovered her. Swift’s soulfully strummed songs whisked me back, for better or for worse, to my high school days, evoking memories of new friendships, first crushes and the hopes of being noticed on the bleachers.

As a then 30-year-old mom of two toddlers, her music brought me a welcome escape at the end of the day. After the kids went to bed each night, I found solace in my basement workspace, painting and refinishing garage sale finds while singing along to the entire Fearless album on repeat.

I’d never want to relive my awkward, oversized flannel-wearing high school days (thank you, early 90s), but “Fifteen”, in particular, brought back one happy moment. On my very first day of freshman year, in Mr. Musselman’s English class, I met my own “red-headed Abigail.” My new best friend. Her name was Jen.

Jen was a raven-haired beauty who wore bold red Sally Jessy Raphael glasses. I’d just gotten my braces off and wore brand new contact lenses. But you know what they say, you can take the girl out of the nerd-wear, but you can’t take the nerd out of the girl. Choir and theater were my activities of choice. Luckily for me, Jen was my spirit sister. We bonded while singing soprano.

We spent many joyful afternoons in my bedroom, singing Paula Abdul’s “Rush, Rush,” which we recorded on my pink Sony boombox to play back and rate our performances. American Idol was a phenomenon yet to be brought forth into the world, but if we’d had the chance, you can bet we’d have been vying for that golden ticket to Hollywood. And a chance to meet Paula – even if it was a no, baby.

On the weekends, Jen and I would fall over giggling on her bedroom floor after calling the local radio station to request a special song for our crushes. On one particular occasion, the DJ aired our recording and played our selection: “More Than Words” by Extreme, of course.

High school came with its hardships and broken hearts, but in those moments with Jen, I learned what true friendship meant. We could be ourselves without fear of judgement. She celebrated all the the dorky quirks that made me, well, me – the best gift she could have possibly given me.

Now, almost 30 years since that first day of high school, Taylor’s song still hits me like a wave, yet with a full spectrum of new emotions. Those two toddlers who wore out their young mother are now teenagers.

My daughter is about to take a deep breath and walk through the doors of Grimsley for her very first day of high school. As her mother, I’m equally excited and nervous for her. She’s strong, beautiful and has a wicked sense of humor that makes me proud and, I’d like to think, confirms that she’s mine.

But high school is a tough crowd. It’s easy to get lost in it or lose sight of who you are.

As my girl begins her journey at Grimsley this year, I’ll be taking deep breaths, too, and sending up this prayer for her and for all of the brand-new freshmen:

May you do all of the things that light your soul on fire, even if they aren’t “cool.” May you find your own red-headed Abigail or raven-haired Jen and love them well in return. Enjoy the good moments and remember that the bad ones will pass and, in the long run, will be a small blip on your lifeline. Remember that you don’t have to know who you’re supposed to be. Keep reaching and realizing those bigger dreams of yours. We’re all rooting for you.

Cassie Bustamante is O.Henry’s digital content creator.

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