This month's find:

The Baltimore Sun

Jenny Mauric has been watching the calendar, counting the days until Monday.

On that day, she will shed her middle-school status and walk the halls of Baltimore City College as a high-school freshman.

Far from feeling trepidation, the teenager from Original Northwood awaits the day with confidence.

Sure, she'll be taking on three international baccalaureate classes, but that's not a cause for concern.

Falling back to the bottom rung in class-rank status? Eh.

Learning new rules, new routines and pecking orders? Super-cute senior boys? All NBD (no big deal, in text-messaging speak) to her.

There's just one thing that this organized, ever-prepared, mature and bright 14-year-old can't seem to master:

What is she going to wear on the first day of school?

"I really have no idea," says Jenny, a week before classes begin. "I probably won't know until the morning of, while I'm standing in my closet."

To help drum up some answers to that age-old question, Jenny and her mother, Jane Mauric, did what parents and kids everywhere do: They went back-to-school shopping.

From Marshalls to Nordstrom's Brass Plum department, from American Eagle to H&M; and Gap, mom and daughter trekked through aisles and aisles of trendy clothes and shoes in Towson - with two of Jenny's pals in tow. Their goal: to find affordable items that will help Jenny be cute and comfortable on her first day of school, and make her stand out and also fit in.

"It's important to make a first impression," says Jenny, who spent the years leading up to this milestone at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, where she was required to wear khakis and navy blue every single day.

"I'm so excited about being able to dress myself the way I want to," Jenny says, scanning the shoe rack at Marshalls. "If I want to wear some elaborate outfit one day and jeans the next, I can."

Jenny's desire for variety meant her shopping spree - the week before school began - would have to produce more than the usual teenage diet of American Eagle denim skirts and Hollister flip-flops.

At Marshalls, Jenny passed up racks of striped, long-sleeved T-shirts and found, instead, an adorable black minidress, with roomy sleeves and a string belt. And at H&M;, she tried on a tiny bubble skirt - all the rage among teenage girls - only to opt for a longer, fuller, brightly colored skirt with a high-waist; a style that hasn't quite made its way to the closet of every teenage girl in America. Yet.

"As we're getting out of middle school, people are finding their own looks," Jenny says. "At first, everyone was in their North Face jackets and jean skirts. Now people have just gotten their own styles. And with my group of friends, everybody's different from each other. So that's really good."

It's also fairly unusual, says Jenn Michael, a "real-life stylist" for Tysons Corner Center in Northern Virginia. In her job - which is to help the upscale mall help its customers make sense of fashion, and find runway looks for less - Michael has found that too many girls Jenny's age go for what's on the mannequin or the salesgirl at popular mall stores, and won't even attempt to branch out fashion-wise.

"I'm glad to hear she went to H&M.; They take their cues from the runway. If you just go to Abercrombie [& Fitch], you're going to look like all your friends," Michael says. "It's encouraging that she's trying to break out of the mold a little bit."

This doesn't mean that Jenny isn't a fan of trendy teenage brands. She's got a pair of Roxy flats she loves, and a Juicy Couture sweater that she couldn't wait to wear to City College's open house - despite the 80-degree weather.

But she also is a 14-year-old who is more thoughtful than your average high-school freshman.

She'll shop at American Eagle, but at a visit to similarly styled Aeropostale during her shopping spree, she turned up her nose.

"I don't really like this store," she says, whizzing past display tables with barely a glance. "It's like one person buys something and then everybody has the same thing. Nothing's different or new."

And even though she and her mother had just the tiniest little hint of a spat about the length of a blue skirt Jenny loved - ("They don't make skirts any longer than this, MOM!" she said, heading for the dressing room at American Eagle. "And I can wear leggings!") - this teenager is surprisingly conscious of not looking too grown-up.

She doesn't really like high heels or anything that hugs her narrow frame too snugly. She's partial, instead, to tees and hoodies, flats and flip-flops. Which makes mom just thrilled.

"We don't really have that problem, do we Jenny?" Jane Mauric says, as she holds up with one finger a teensy, lacy camisole at Nordstrom. "You don't really have that ... that ... "

"Urge to dress like a skank?" Jenny says, helping her mother find the appropriate word.

"Exactly," her mother says, smiling. "That."

And Jenny also is careful that the clothes she picks reflect her - or as much of herself as she's figured out so far.

A wall of graphic tees at Nordstrom, for example, were daring and cheeky and fun. But none of them said "anything about me," Jenny says.

"Like, what is 'United Way?' " Jenny asks her mother, as she peers cockeyed at an orange T-shirt emblazoned with that organization's rainbow logo. "Is it an insurance company or something?"

Her mother got a good laugh out of that one, and turned the moment into a little lesson on charitable giving.

Jenny's gaffe aside, the new freshman's trend-bucking attitude is a lesson for teenage girls all over, says Michael.

"This is a time to sort of break away from what your friends are doing and steer clear of the logos," she says. "Find out who you are, and develop your own style."

After spending two hours shopping and $80 on clothes, Jane Mauric is "starting to wind down," and wants to take Jenny's two friends back home, then drive her daughter to a friend's house in Pennsylvania for an end-of-summer visit.

Jenny has found only two skirts and a dress (she had purchased other items, such as a belt, jeans and low-top Converse sneakers, on earlier trips to the mall). But she doesn't argue when her mother gives her the raised-eyebrows look that all teenagers know means "Time to go."

That's because Jenny's got big plans for her Pennsylvania weekend with friends.

"More shopping," she says.

Back-to-school shopping

Back-to-school shoppers said they planned to spend $500 this year , according to the NPD Group Inc., which tracks consumer spending. That's about 5 percent less than last year.

"Consumers have a budget in mind" when they shop, Marshal Cohen, NPD Group's chief industry analyst, said in a news release.

A limited budget is precisely why Jane Mauric of Original Northwood started her daughter Jenny's shopping spree at discount retailers such as Marshalls.

"We go for cheap first, and if we don't find anything, then we start moving up the ladder," Mauric says.

Here's how other back-to-school shoppers said they planned to divvy up their dollars, compared with last year.

[Tanika White]

Category 2007 2006

School supplies 78% 80%

Apparel 71% 66%

Footwear 60% 54%

Electronics 46% 44%

School bags 44% 41%

Accessories 23% 26%

Beauty products 13% 15%

Bedding 10% 8%

Sports equipment 8% 8%

[Source: NPD Group Inc.]

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