Smells Like Broken Teen Spirit

This is another post prompted by my dear friend Beth. Apparently she’s not only my Tuesday night movie partner, she’s also a muse of sorts. Lol sorry Beth.

Anyway. After a long break followed by a shorter one (winter and then I had the weirdest virus for a couple weeks) we finally got back to the theater last week. We saw the Julia Louis-Dreyfus film “You Hurt my Feelings”. I braced myself to be annoyed by privileged white people with made up problems but in the end, we both enjoyed it. Beth was mildly horrified to see the bad guy from Outlander as the main character’s husband. I have not yet watched Outlander (hey now remember I finally watched the Sopranos just a couple years back) so the only thing I thought about him was how he looked kind of like how I imagine Heath Ledger would look if he was still around. 

So we chatted a bit after the lights came up and Beth asked me a few questions about writing (Julia L-D’s character was a writer). Like, how did I start. And of course, that got me thinking. 

This is where we play the Wayne’s World Dream Weaver music…as I float back through time.

This post is a warning, or maybe more like some advice, to all adults who are in any sort of educator/supervisory role in the lives of teens. Maybe this applies to kids of all ages, but this is about something that happened to me when I was in high school. Something that might have completely altered the course of my life. Feel free to share it with friends or acquaintances who may benefit from reading it. 

I was a troubled student. Not so much in elementary and middle school, definitely in high school. A combination of a spectacularly shitty home life, mind-numbing depression and anxiety and just being a teenager turned me into an angry clown, always making jokes to try and desperately hide the despair and rage in my heart. 

One thing that brought me comfort was writing. It started pretty early on, I had piles of notebooks in my room filled with short stories, poems, skits, etc. There was a brief stint as a reporter for the Minneapolis newspaper’s weekly pull out kid-centric magazine, The Smile Factory. There was always a story being told by the narrator in my head. Still is!

Before I discovered booze and pot, writing was my escape hatch from a brutal life. It led to a place where parents weren’t divorced, moms didn’t marry monsters and nobody was punching me. I wrote science fiction stories, cringy poems about boys, opinion pieces, concert reviews, letters to the editors. Writing was the one and only thing, besides jokes, that came to me without much effort. Like a secret wordy wellspring hidden deep within that angst ridden brain of mine. 

High school was awful. I tried really hard to do it right, but always missed the mark. I was a cheerleader for a couple years, but not one of the cute/pretty rah rah girls. I was the smoking one. The one with a six pack of 3.2 beer from the gas station tucked away in the trunk of my car. The one who had Sex Pistols buttons on my sweater alongside the HOMECOMING 84!! pins. 

My grades sucked. In every subject except English-related ones. I hated school. But I loved writing.

Back then there wasn’t the cutthroat pressure to know exactly what you wanted to do with your life. There wasn’t a whole lot of college prep stuff happening, at least in my world. But I did absorb a thing or two from one of the awkward meetings with my guidance counselor and one of those things was trying to figure out what I liked, and what I was good at. 

There was really only one thing which covered both of those points. Writing. 

We took these inane aptitude tests, I think in our junior year. Mine came back with two possible career choices: journalist or flower arranging. 

So in my very hazy and half assed way, I tried figuring out how best to get some more writing experience that would also maybe prop up my saggy GPA. 

This was the eighties. There were basically three methods to get your words out into the universe: books, newspapers, and magazines. In high school, there were two ways.

The yearbook, and our adolescent version of the literary magazine that was produced a few times a year (my memory is foggy, haha. So some of these details may be off. That’s okay, you get the gist).

I went ahead and decided to try to make it onto the yearbook staff. 

The staff advisor for the yearbook was a woman named Sharon Something. Wish I could say last name withheld due to privacy and decency but truth is, I can’t remember it. 

Sharon did not like me. Not one bit. Having worked in a school myself, I know it’s impossible to truly like every kid. But it’s not super hard to pretend you do. It’s part of being an adult amongst children. Not every kid is likable but they all deserve some good acting from you. 

Not Sharon. I’d taken one of her lit classes and that’s when she seemed to have decided that I was not worth her efforts. In her defense, I was an asshole. Remember, I was a joker (and a smoker and also a midnight toker). Just the joker at school though, and Sharon did not approve. She gave me my lowest grade ever in an English class, and made it abundantly clear that I was a waste of resources. My mom cried at that conference. 

So of course she was the yearbook advisor. And of course my interest in joining the staff was met with a quick and resounding NO. I knew she didn’t like me, but at that time I still thought the majority of the adults in the world were good, so I figured it was a capacity thing or maybe I just wasn’t good enough.

No worries. There was the literary magazine. That was probably a better fit, I told myself. Because I was all literal and shit. Do you want to guess who the staff advisor was? Here’s a hint:


Once again, rejection. This time I had a feeling the dismissal wasn’t because of too many applicants for too few spots. I had a feeling Sharon was giving me some sort of hint. 

Oh well, I thought. Maybe I’m just meant to be a contributor, that’s all. 

So I gathered up several of my best written pieces, and even wrote a special new poem and handed them in as submissions for the magazine. This time the spurning came with a handwritten note.

Across the front of one returned submission was a sloping, cursive message:

Jeni: Your writing is not good enough for publication. Mrs XXX.

That was the day I quit writing. 

My best friend at the time, Anne, was also a jokester and we had a fantasy about becoming writers for television. Like Saturday Night Live! We’re still in touch and have talked about how we should have taken that big huge risk after graduation and gone to New York. Yes, it was naive and we most likely would have ended up not as Tina Fey and Amy Pohler. More likely, as tragic characters in a Jay McInerney novel but still. We were young and hopeful and the world was supposedly our oyster. 

Unfortunately a massive chunk of my hopes and most of my confidence died on that piece of paper next to the pithy note from ol’ Sharon. 

I don’t think Sharon’s treatment of me, as gross as it was, led directly to any particular failure or bumble in my life. But it stomped out that precious spark of magic that just might have become something good. Something better.  

When my mom died, among the few belongings of hers that I was allowed to have was a large manila envelope. She had saved all of the little newspaper stories I’d written, along with some other pieces of my writing. It wasn’t something that will be published and loved after I’m gone but it was pretty damn good for a kid. With the right guidance, with the encouragement and support of a trusted adult…ugh. Who knows what could have been? 

The hibernating writer in me woke up, crabby and rarin’ to go, in 2006. No longer a scared and insecure teen, in 2006 I was a scared and insecure 40 year old mother to four who had just been left by her husband. The words demanded to be written. They pounded on the walls of my head and poured out of me- not into stacks of spiral notebooks but into a computer and they filled up the screen and one day, I hit that little icon that said PUBLISH

This time, there was no Sharon. 

No, Lorne Michaels didn’t read my blog and hire me on the spot. No agent called. No books with my face on the back cover have been published. 

But through writing, I have met hundreds of incredible people. My words were in magazines, they were in an actual book, they went viral. To this day, I receive emails and dms from women who found comfort and sometimes a few giggles here in this blog or in a post or an essay. My writing has made a small difference in this world. 

Sharon was wrong. Turns out, my writing was good enough. Good enough for me. 

So- this is the advice I want to give to anyone who might be a Sharon to some Jeni out there (yes I spelled it that way in high school but people always got it wrong so I caved):

I don’t care if you hate that kid. Yep, I know. They are zero fun to be around. They are sullen. They are combative. They waste your time and the time of the other kids in the class. They might push every button you have. 

But I beg of you. Don’t kill their spark. Read their stuff. If it’s even halfway decent, LET THEM KNOW. Try to see beyond your frustration and through their armor. Push them, challenge them, accept them exactly as they are. See their potential even if it means holding your eyeballs with your hands to keep them from rolling back inside your head. 

I know you are not paid enough, you’re most likely dealing with a clueless and inept administration, and that behavior is at an all time atmospheric level of cuckoo. But I guarantee that at least one of those kids needs just a taste of your approval. A smidgen. It might be the nudge they need to take a chance, that really big one. 

Or it may just make them feel seen. Win/win.

And on the very off chance that there is a young Jeni out there reading this:

Your writing is good, kid. Good enough for publication even. 


  1. What a powerful piece. I agree -- teens can be horrible to deal with, but as the adult Sharon should have TRIED!! I often tutor math, and, again, teachers and other adults have squashed any love of math out of these kids. So sad....

  2. It's true - looking back, it surprises me how small comments by teachers could have an outsize effect on me!

  3. Dang that Sharon! So glad you kept up the writing. Please keep writing, you make me laugh. ❤️

  4. I love this one!! I don't remember much from back then, esp. Sharon the teacher. She was a bully of a teacher. Your writing is cathartic and I'm grateful you have persevered.


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