I Used To Be A Girl Who Wrote Poems That Boys Saved

Photo: courtesy of the author
nostalgic collection of love letter, necklace and an old photograph of Joanna Schroeder in a swimsuit on a Florida beach
Self

Two days ago, I found a message from an old friend in my dreaded “other” folder on Facebook. It was mixed in with fake inquiries from Russian bots and the standard hate mail and death threats I get as a woman who writes things on the internet, so I almost missed it.

It was from a guy I met on spring break my senior year of high school. He mentioned that he'd read an article of mine in The New York Times and had smiled when he saw the byline.

“Look what I found,” he wrote, attaching a scanned image. 

Based on the tiny preview image on my phone, it looked like someone’s grocery list, but with tattered edges. 

When I clicked to expand it, I saw my handwriting.

It was a poem. A romantic poem — and not exactly a great one. I’d signed it and written, “Florida, 1996” at the bottom. A wave of nostalgia almost overwhelmed me.  

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I was afraid to read it. I haven’t written a poem in at least twenty years, but in the spring of 1996 poetry was a big part of my life — in fact, it was the main reason I was admitted to college. I got bad grades and had trouble completing assignments, but apparently I wrote poems that made people think I’d do OK in life.

Back then, I loved writing poems. I loved watching people blush or smile as they read them. 

The Florida, 1996 poem isn’t great writing. It was written on the fly, in a hotel room surrounded by a lot of very loud young people. But there was something special about it — to him and to me, at least.

Reading it after 24 years made my face sting with a curious mix of shame and nostalgia. It also may have kicked off a bit of a midlife crisis.

I wasn’t in love with the boy I wrote the poem for, but I admired him. We’d met on the beach; him with a group of college boys and me with my friends, all 18 year-old high school girls.

Our two groups became one and we spent the week together. We even ended our Florida trip early to caravan with them into Louisiana where we slept on the living room floor of one boy’s parents’ home in New Orleans. 

When I first examined the old poem, I didn’t remember writing it. It had clearly been written by a fearless girl, a girl who wasn’t afraid to flatter and flirt and put something vulnerable and raw out into the world. 

The author, in pink, flanked by her friends in Florida, 1996

As I read it, standing in my kitchen, I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know how to anchor that version of myself in the present day, so I closed the app and shoved my phone in my pocket.

I pushed it out of my mind as I drove my son to his pitching lesson at the park, my toddler in tow, as always. 

I wore Birkenstocks, a long skirt and a big tee tied at the waist. My hair was three-days dirty, clipped up under a baseball cap with a surf brand logo on it. This is my uniform.

I am mostly anonymous, a typical Generation X Southern California mom doling out hand sanitizer and hovering below a play structure as my toddler finds her way up ladders and down slides. People often forget meeting me. I slip in and out of situations unnoticed, my focus on my kids.

That’s my life: My husband, my kids, and my work. 

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Once we were back home, I opened the message attachment again. What had made me write such a thing to a boy I barely knew? What kind of youthful gall is necessary in order to be the girl who dashes off a poem, signs it, and hands it to a boy to keep?

Then I remembered. He had asked me to write it after a long conversation that got deep, fast.

Our relationship wasn’t romantic, but it was special. He had a presence and solidness that was different from the boys I knew. I told him about my writing and my life, and he told me about his. He thought I was smart and he said it out loud. I could tell he meant it.

Something inside me changed.

The poem was written on graph paper, likely ripped from geometry homework that someone’s mom had forced them to drag along on the trip. Looking at it, reading it again, I remembered why I’d signed it: he had asked me to. 

“For when you’re famous,” he’d told me with a wink. 

I studied the edges of the paper. He had clearly treasured it, opening it and reading it, then folding it back up many times. When it was about to fall apart, he scanned it into a computer and saved it in a file. 

That’s when it occurred to me: I used to be a girl who wrote poems that people saved.

 The author circa 1997

The poem was a time machine back to the days when I walked around with my chest cranked open, my heart exposed. I fell in love quickly and then broke hearts when I retreated in fear.

I was impetuous, said things I shouldn’t have that burned bridges, and wasn’t afraid to be the exact person I was, even though that person wasn’t always solid or reliable. 

But the nostalgia surrounding this old poem isn’t about the guy — now a wonderful man in his forties with a lovely wife and a child — or anyone. It’s not about romance or titillation or finding someone to write poems for. I’m not looking to write poems at all. 

The appearance of the poem got me thinking that in trying to rein in the wild thing that I used to be — in trying to be less of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and more of a smart, capable mom and wife — I may have swung the pendulum too far. 

The content I write for my day job is measured and careful. My stories in The New York Times have been edited to fit their tone, all of the whimsy and passion removed. There’s nothing wrong with that — editing is the most important part of being a writer. I’m grateful to have had those opportunities and I hope to have more again.

But thinking back to that girl in Florida in 1996, I can’t help but wonder what happens to all us fireball girls after we grow up. 

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Girls like me give off a lot of heat.

We are pistols, as my stepdad used to call me. We are made of an energy that feels boundless at times, and, as the First Law of Thermodynamics states, energy cannot be destroyed — it can only change forms.

What has all that energy turned into inside of me? 

Sometimes when I lie in bed I feel like I’m crawling out of my skin. I’m exhausted from all the mothering and working and trying to stay on top of bills and helping my recently-widowed mother. I have a toddler who likes to sit up in her crib and shout “Mama milkies!” four times a night, but falling asleep still takes some time.

I roll from one side to the other and then try my back. I throw my arms up over my head and sigh deeply. My legs feel like they're vibrating. 

The appearance of the Florida, 1996 poem has caused me to wonder if the restlessness in my legs and pounding in my heart have nothing to do with anxiety or stress or a need for more Magnesium in my diet. Maybe they are manifestations of all the energy that used to drive me.

What if all of us girls who scared our parents, who devastated the boys and girls that loved us and who wrote poems that people saved have gone too far in our attempts to create quiet, predictable lives? 

Maybe we tried too hard to fit in with churches that had once cast us out when we were deemed too loud, too queer, or too tempting for the youth group boys.

Maybe we tried too hard to become Velmas after lifetimes of being Daphnes just so men would take us seriously, smoothing down our neatly-buttoned cardigans while pushing up our glasses.

Maybe our attempts to become “normal” are why there are so many Wine Moms carrying rosé in Thermoses or why so many married women have tawdry conversations with ex-boyfriends on Instagram. The fever of nostalgia overcomes them.

In an era where you can access anyone, anytime you want, nostalgia is a hot commodity. Love letters you wrote while studying abroad and photos from college pop up randomly on Facebook. Every song you ever heard at a high school dance can be compiled into a Spotify list. 

This nostalgia is likely what makes Generation X's midlife crises all the more intense, but it's likely still the same feeling our moms and grandmothers had as their children grew up, wondering what happened to the ghosts of our past selves as we let go of what simply doesn't work in a grown woman's life.

Have the girls who burned hot and drove fast taken all this maturity too far? 

Have our attempts to be good — good mothers, good wives, good providers — caused us to lose what made us special?

The author and one of her babies

I don’t want to jump out of an airplane or travel the world. I don’t want to be away from my kids or miss baseball games or archery lessons. I want to play ponies with my daughter and hold her hand as she climbs boulders to chase lizards. I want to admire my beautiful and amazing husband and at least sometimes attempt to cook a dinner that we can eat as a family.

I just want to remember what it was like to write things people love —not just things people find useful.

Can you do all of that with your heart exposed? Can you be a good mom and a grown woman in her forties, and still be a ball of fire? I don’t know what it looks like to be that type of woman, I don't know if I've ever met one.

But I also haven’t looked for the answer until now. It seems I've been too busy buttoning down my life and lowering the volume of my voice so that I don't take up all the space in every room I walk into. 

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As we grow and change, as we become the women we were meant to be, we will always leave something behind. The greatest fear of many women my age is not aging — it's that we've lost something important that we can't get back.

That's what's at the heart our generation's version of a midlife crisis — or at least of mine.

I truly believe that the girl who was willing to write awkward, vulnerable poetry and shout over everyone else is gone. But that's OK. Being that person was exhausting sometimes.

But there is a remnant of her here, shining inside me the same way a bright light makes spots behind your eyelids when you close them. 

Maybe all the hate mail and threats in my Facebook inbox that almost hid my old friend's message to me — the ones I receive when I write something that insecure men hate — are the real proof that my drive-fast, leave-no-heart-unbroken days aren't actually behind me.

What's actually missing isn't the fire or the fearlessness of my past, but rather my innocent ability to see and accept myself for who I am. 

After all, the answers aren't back in 1996. Everything that girl has to offer is still with me. I just have to remember how to appreciate it all and then let the regrets go.

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Joanna Schroeder is a feminist writer and media critic whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, Time, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, BuzzFeed, Esquire, Vox, and more. Follow her on Twitter for more.