What you wish you’d known when you were 10

{Mom and me at my fifth grade promotion, 1996}

When I was 10, I was captain of the safety patrols. My hair was thick and tangly, and I wore red Sally Jesse glasses. I had already outgrown much of my wardrobe and was actually borrowing blouses from my tall, pretty mother. I was on the math team, wore multicolored moccasins I picked out from Kmart and was obsessed with tornadoes.

I had a wicked crush on a boy named Matt who was “dating” a pretty curly-haired girl named Andrea, and I fell asleep at night praying he would eventually like me back. Despite my crush-to-end-all-crushes (Jessica Darling-style), I thought kissing a boy would be gross — and couldn’t actually imagine doing such a thing. I had friends who were just about as awkward as I was, and we agreed that kissing was really disgusting.

My fifth-grade teacher realized I liked to write, and she read one of my short stories — “Night Of The Twisters,” title shamelessly ripped off from the Devon Sawa made-for-TV movie of the same name — to the class. Though I was proud of my work, I was embarrassed when Mrs. Smallwood tried to read lines like, “Get away from me, you morian [sic]!” aloud. I’d actually meant “moron,” which was some pret-ty unkind language for a 10-year-old, but we didn’t have spellcheck in 1996. “Morian” it was.

On Monday morning, I got a really interesting call: a local elementary school asked me to be their keynote speaker at a fifth-grade promotion ceremony in June. The event’s theme, “Turning the Page,” dovetails nicely with my job as a newspaper columnist — and the school’s vice principal was actually my second grade teacher (she of the “I’m proud of you” note). Without thinking, I agreed to come and speak — and have already drafting my five-minute speech. I’m a teensy bit nervous.

Despite the fact that I have approximately .4672 ounces of patience in my entire body, I’ve always thought teaching would be a really rewarding profession. (The teachers out there might be cutting me the eye, but I’m sure it is sometimes — right?) In my daydreams, the opportunity to help kids seems awesome. I think about how much my own teachers inspired me, and the chance to encourage other kids at such a tumultuous time could make a difference.

Of course, the story has already been written — and I’m a writer. I wouldn’t — and couldn’t — have it any other way, but I still jumped at the chance to live out my teacher daydream for a few minutes: speaking to today’s youth and encouraging them to be brave, bold and kind.

I know it’s, like, 10 minutes of the kids’ lives — and that much of my own, too. But I remember my fifth grade promotion ceremony like it was yesterday, and I definitely remember all the people who encouraged me to do great things as I grew up.

As the Rod Stewart song I always have stuck in my head goes, “I wish that I knew what I know now . . . when I was younger.” So here’s the question I have for you, friends: given the chance, what advice would you give your 10-year-old self?

Like any commencement speaker, I want to be inspiring, pithy, funny and . . . quick. No one enjoys some long-winded old bag talking endlessly about the “good old days,” and I refuse to go down in flames. Those 10-year-olds are going to be give me a standing ovation.

Unless, you know, I suck.

So please help me not suck.

What advice would you give
your 10-year-old self?

Memories of Easter candies past

So yes, I’m trying to lose weight. Like 90 percent of the general adult population. Like many friends and coworkers, all of whom conspire to keep me on the straight and narrow. Like my poor boyfriend, who is constantly trying to get me to embrace his healthy(-ier) lifestyle . . . and has faced my hungry, annoyed face on more than one occasion. Especially as I explore the theories set forth in Cynthia Sass’s S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim, a diet book that is both enlightening and profoundly upsetting.

Because I seem to be doing All The Bad Things.

And I know a tough holiday is coming up, friends: a holiday in which I sacrifice myself at the altar of hollow chocolate bunnies. When I was a kid, Easter was all about family (and it still is, of course), worship and, well . . . presents. Edible presents.

I’m talking candy, y’all. Real, sugary, honest-to-goodness candy.

Like Christmas morning, Easter Sunday back in the ’90s would always begin with my sister and I huddled together while my parents prepared to capture our shrieks of delight as we ran down the stairs. Many years featured the Easter Bunny hiding little toys and plastic eggs around the living room, leading us into a small scavenger hunt, and we tore through the downstairs seeking our prizes.

This went on for a while — years and years. Until Katie, reaching the age of reason, finally looked at me with wide, blinking eyes. “The Easter Bunny’s handwriting sure looks a lot like Mom’s,” she scoffed, holding up a folded index card with scavenger hunt instructions. And being the older, bossy sister I was, I could only shrug with what I imagined as an impassive expression on my face. It was probably the mocking “I know something you don’t know” look all siblings despise.

At 26, I still look forward to Peeps and chocolate bunnies and robin’s egg bubblegum. And Reese’s eggs and Pixy Stix and Cadbury cream eggs. As long as I don’t get any NECCO wafers (blech, seriously — what are those?), I’m a happy girl — and no amount of faux-dieting I convince myself I’m doing will keep me from diving headfirst into my basket this year.

I’m Meg, a sweets addict. As evidenced by the time I posed in Dylan’s Candy Bar in New York City — quite possibly the most insane shopping experience I’ve ever had. In the twenty or so minutes we prowled the store, we saw and heard two glass containers full of sugary goodness smash to the floor . . . and trying to check out was enough to give me a panic attack. And all I wanted was a little porcelain container shaped like a cupcake.

And candy, of course. I don’t remember what I got, but there’s no way I left empty-handed. I must have brought home some sort of sweet for Spencer, who lives and dies by Jelly-Belly jelly beans. Pear flavored, to be exact. I tell the man he’s sweet enough already (aww), but he’s hopelessly addicted.

I don’t worry about it, though. I’m definitely not one to judge.


So tell me, friends: What’s your favorite type of Easter candy? What did you love as a kid? Has your sugar-covered palate changed over the years?

‘Proud of you’

I got a note from my second grade teacher yesterday.

It’s funny how people emerge from the past like specters, and just a few sentences can transport you back to a different time. In my case, that would be 1992 — and I would be a boisterous 7-year-old with flowing curls just discovering books. I’d always loved being read to, and my parents’ penchant for storytime was a favorite pastime. Someone was always reading in my house.

Mrs. Brown was the first teacher to notice I loved to write — and to encourage that interest. I distinctly remember showing her a story I crafted about Carrot the bunny and his bunny family, and Mrs. Brown’s kind expression as she read my work and offered some helpful tips. “After someone is speaking, you don’t always have to say ‘he said,'” she explained, indicating a string of dialogue that probably went something like this:

“I’m going to the store,” Carrot said.
“Don’t go alone,” Mama said.
“I won’t — I’ll take Brother,” he said.
“Be back by dinner,” she said.

Pure poetry, I know. The greats reveal their genius early.

I have many memories from Mrs. Brown’s classroom, which was close to the “little kids'” recess spot on the far side of the school. That class of 25 or 30 kids was where I first met Daniel, the kid on whom I nursed a wicked crush and sent lovey-dovey Valentine cards. It was where I started to understand math and history, and when I realized I could write stories like the ones I found in books.

Mrs. Brown was the first teacher to encourage my writing, telling my parents that she thought I had talent. Twenty years after Carrot the bunny, she reads my biweekly columns in the local paper — and she wrote me a note to tell me so. The entire message is very sweet, but the best part comes at the end: “I am proud of you.”

How simple those words are.

How powerful those words are.

As a kid (and teen), I idolized my teachers. I can vividly recall every one of them, remembering their lessons and soothing voices and homework help. Each was special in their own way, and it’s so crazy to think of them now — these women (and a few men) I put on pedestals, more than mere mortals who could do no wrong through the bright lens of my childhood.

Knowing Mrs. Brown is reading the work of her former pupil — me — and remembering the kid I once was, the kid I still am inside, makes me extraordinarily happy. I’ve heard from my elementary school librarian (she was so awesome!), my first grade teacher, my beloved gym teacher. I smile uncontrollably every time, remembering the sunny days spent in their classrooms and on the playground. I had a really, really happy childhood — probably a better one than most. I was too young to realize that.

I’m glad I was too young to realize that.

Pride is such a powerful emotion. All I’ve ever wanted was to make my family proud, my teachers proud. My sister. My boyfriend. My friends. And someday, some shiny day, my children.

Hearing from Mrs. Brown gave me an opportunity to do what we rarely think to do: thank her. Remembering the pride I felt when she read my Carrot story aloud still fills me with warmth. She’s the first teacher to put books in my hand; she’s the one who encouraged me to write crazy stories, then rewarded that creativity with kindness instead of dismissal. I’ve never thought to reach out to her. But now I have.

It takes just a moment to say a kind word, to forge or reform a connection. The simplest word from you can change the trajectory of someone’s day, of someone’s week. Maybe someone’s life. If you have a moment, thank someone who has helped you along the way. I’ve never regretted it.

Favorite Halloween costumes and an ‘Aww, Ricky’

We take so much for granted as children. I mean, dressing up? Nothing out of the ordinary. We can be princesses and walk in our mothers’ heels from here to eternity, never worrying that anyone is discussing our eccentric behavior. It’s nothing to don a crown and prance around the living room, or to find a magic wand and place “curses” on others. It’s all fun. Make believe.

But since I’m not eight anymore, I know I can’t get away with such behavior. Halloween is the only time I can safely go out dressed as a witch or devil and not be thought a creeper by the general populace. I might try to milk the whole costume thing and dress up in Christmas- or elf-related garb come December, but that’s a stretch.

Like all kids, I took my Halloween costumes very seriously. There was the year I was a cheerleader, for instance, complete with a sash for my elementary school. On another occasion I was Miss America (oh, if only); and then, of course, there were the endless witch costumes. The Wicked Witch was sort of my go-to, which is funny considering how terrified I am of “The Wizard of Oz.” I guess I was overcompensating.

One of my favorites was my Blue Fairy costume. In 1992, Katie dressed up as Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” and I recycled one of my mom’s old bridesmaids dresses from the ’60s to become a magical helper. What I remember most were the sequin-covered wands my little sister and I had. Though I’m unsure why Belle would need a magic wand, we went with it — and you’ll also spot a fully-clothed Beast doll in Katie’s arms. (He lost his Beast head soon after and was, from then on, merely the unmasked Prince.)

We used to go trick-or-treating in our own neighborhood, checking out the costumes on the local kids, then hop over to my grandparents’ house to visit their friends and neighbors. Since our elementary school was just a block or two from Grandma and Grandpa’s, we usually saw lots of kids we knew — and showing off your costumes was always half the fun.

Though Halloween is different now, of course, I still enjoy the holiday and eat my fair share of treats. I dressed up as a ’20s flapper in 2009 and have a newly-acquired Lucille Ball costume for this year’s festivities! I’m still trying to convince Spencer to be the Ricky to my Lucy, but he’s hesitant thus far. If he goes for it, we’re going to have to work on our “Babalu.” 

Though my singing could make an angel cry. 

Maybe I’ll just stick to the ol’ trademark “Aww, Rick-yyyyyy . . .”

Whining? Never been a problem for me.

Weddings and endings and beginnings

In high school, I was a serious theatre nerd. Trying out for my first play freshman year was a huge leap for young, socially-awkward me — and not just because it required me to memorize lines and not fall face-first on the school stage. Coming from the disjointed throes of middle school, I was looking for a way to become a new person — a more confident person — and theatre seemed like a natural way to try that.

Over the course of four years, I was in more than a dozen shows and met countless people. Theatre changed my life in profound ways — especially because I was so active in the department during those crucial teen years. The fun of playing a character on stage held major draw for me, sure, but that wasn’t even what I loved most about theatre.

It was the friendships.

Over the course of a few months, we would audition and be cast and then spend hours daily running lines, rehearsing scenes and getting to know one another. After school each day, our cast and crew would assemble and start to plan these huge shows that would take over our young lives. And when opening day would finally arrive, finding us all antsy and excited and scared, there was always a time before the curtain drew open that I would force myself to pause and savor the moment.

In that world, murmurs from the audience reached the actors and technicians buzzing around backstage as the stage manager would wrangle us with whispered instructions. As show time approached, my stomach would lurch as lines and directions ran through my nervous mind. But when the spotlight clicked on and my heels hit the stage, all that anxiety would ebb away.

Backstage is where I first met Erin, my steadfast friend and new bride. As a freshman, I envied sophomore Erin’s confidence, humor and poise. Both active in drama, it didn’t take long for us to share costume tips, laugh as ’50s teenyboppers in “Bye Bye Birdie” (pictured above) and form bonds that would carry us into adulthood.

With a wide circle of mutual friends, Erin never made me feel like I was another passing acquaintance. Our conversations have inspired me in difficult times, and my trust in her is absolute. A year ahead of me in school, Erin was the first of my friends to arrive at the college I would follow her to the next fall. We briefly lost touch at university, but nothing could have delighted me more than getting a Facebook note from her during my junior year: “I think we have a class together this spring!”

We were both English majors and poets, and it was a literature class on the works of William Shakespeare that brought us together again. I remember the afternoon she showed me a text message from a handsome guy she’d just met. Her eyes glittered like diamonds, and neither of us paid much attention to our droning professor. She was thinking about when she would see him next.

About twelve years after Erin and I shared a stage in high school and more than five years since that class, Erin and Matt were married at Ft. Belvoir on Sept. 10. As one of her bridesmaids, we spent Saturday getting ready and laughing about old times. Secluded before the ceremony, I listened to the murmur of guests arriving and felt my stomach flip. All these years later and we were in a show together again. I ran through my lines and directions, but my task now was simple: try not to cry as my dear friend married her love.

Just as we had more than a decade ago, I marched ahead of Erin into the spotlight — and held my breath as she appeared on her father’s arm. My chest ached as I took in the moment: this ending and this beginning; the pooling of tears in the groom’s eyes; this exquisitely beautiful bride, and the true gift that has been our years of friendship. When I think about all that Erin has meant to me, I feel overwhelmed. I wiped tears away the entire ceremony.

Vows were exchanged and promises made, and this performance went on as scheduled. Love lit up Erin and Matt’s faces all evening, and we enjoyed delicious food and even better times. Dancing and snapping shots in a photo booth were definite highlights, and it felt so good to have Spencer on my arm.

When I looked over at the newlyweds’ expressions and felt my own face mirroring that high, I was emotional all over again. I’ve had my heart broken. Erin has been there for me through everything — through that, and so much more — and I felt so elated to just be . . . happy. And in love. In love at her wedding, a moment we’ve anticipated for so long. And when Spencer pulled me in for a dance, I forgot about whether or not everyone was watching us. It didn’t matter. Nothing did.

I think about Erin and all the good things I wish for her. I think about Matt and how I hope and pray he will love and care for her always, as I hope she will for him. I think about all the exciting things that are ahead of them — and for me, and for all of us — and am filled with this sense of elation and wonderment and pride.

Weddings are beginnings — but they’re endings, too. But for once in my life, I didn’t focus on the sadness that can often tint my enjoyment of the good things in life. I thought about how honored I was to be a part of her day, and how thankful I am for the people in my world.

And like so many of our plays in high school — and all the good books I’ve read — I know this is just the beginning of their fairytale ending.

I will be 10

I’m fortunate to live and work close to my grandparents, two of the most influential people in my life. Growing up, I went to an elementary school just blocks from their house and spent entire summers in my mother’s childhood home, doing crafts with Grandma and being completed spoiled rotten by her cooking. (My Maw Maw, Dad’s mom, is also an excellent cook — and baker. I could dedicate an entire post to Maw Maw’s tomato sandwiches, cookies and peanut butter cups, but that will have to tantalize you another day.)

A decade after I started high school and stopped going to Grandma and Grandpa’s daily, I’m still close with my grandparents and try to meet Grandma for lunch every few weeks. She usually has a collection of things to give me — old newspaper announcements from when I made honor roll or the dean’s list; handwritten recipes; photos of my sister and me as little girls. I’ve come to look forward — and almost expect — these small treasures to land in my hands, laughing with Gram at a shared memory from when I was a wild-haired toddler or sullen teen.

I’ve always been a writer. I penned my first book in second grade, about a bunny named Carrot; my teacher was so impressed that she read it to the class. By fifth grade, I’d written an entire family drama about a girl named Viola and her unruly twin brothers, then moved on to writing sequels to “Star Wars,” a middle school obsession, when I finally finished the original trilogy of films and didn’t think the plot headed in the right direction. (At 11, I was a Luke-and-Leia shipper. I just couldn’t get over that they were — gasp — brother and sister. There was love in their eyes, I tell you. Love.)

And in that time? Well, I started penning my memoirs. I’m not sure what a 9-year-old really had to say about life and love, but darn if I didn’t attempt it. Gram had a typewriter and she would often indulge me by setting it up with a few sheets of feather-light paper. It was so delicate, unmarred. A fast typer but never really an accurate one, I would often get frustrated by my typos and give up on the whole typewriter thing. I just didn’t want to mess up that perfect paper.

Plus, then the computer came along. So I started typing on that.

And now I feel old.

But it turns out typing wasn’t as fun as hand writing my stories, so I went back to honing my literary sentiments with markers and sheets of loose-leaf paper. That’s what you find above — one of my early attempts at introducing myself to the world (please note the “Hi!”, as if someone were peeking over my shoulder and anxious to read my thoughts.)

I’ve grown up quite a bit since my “I will be 10” days, but I still feel like that little girl sometimes. Full of a zest for life and eager to tell everyone about the things she loves: pink; Power Rangers; the piano. Though I didn’t turn out to be a scientist or archeologist (where did that come from?), I’m still curious about life and always ready to tell a story.

But now I get to do it on a slightly larger scale.

And for that? I’m eternally thankful. And hopeful for what’s to come.

Not quite as cool as archeology, but I still think 9-year-old Meg would be impressed. You know, if she could tear herself away from “Power Rangers.”

Then and now: Young adult books I wish I’d read as a young adult

When I was fourteen, a freshman in high school, I began what I now refer to as my “difficult years.” I know I joke about the attitude and my unwillingness to wear Halloween costumes, for example, but this was more than that. This was growing up and being home on my own, being apart from my sister and parents, no longer spending after school hours with my grandparents. This was a seismic shift in my world.

I don’t remember everything I read in high school. I know that, late in the game, I discovered Meg Cabot and Sarah Dessen,  newcomers on the young adult fiction scene at the time (am I dating myself? Hello, 2001!). Always a voracious reader, I did lose myself in Cabot’s Princess Diaries series, one of my all-time favorites, and began to discover works from Shakespeare and Jane Austen. But nothing really stuck.

The first book I remember changing my world — and the book I credit with reawakening my love of literature — is Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. It completely encapsulated so many of my feelings about family, loss, identity and guilt. If I’d read The Namesake as a teenager, I might have seen several key events unfolding in my life a little differently — but that book hadn’t been written yet. And neither had Dessen’s The Truth About Forever, a novel about a young woman grappling with her father’s sudden death. All of these subjects, while sometimes morbid, helped me process my own conflicting emotions about loss and grief.

While I was fortunate to never lose a close relative or friend as a teenager, other losses were suddenly everywhere. A friend who suddenly stopped calling, stopped sitting at our designated lunch table. Others who moved away, leaving a ragged hole where their friendship once filled my life. A loss of time with my family; a loss of identity when I entered high school, a different one than my long-time best friend. The little losses stacked upon themselves, creating a mountain under which I was buried.

But I got through it. No one emerges from adolescence completely unscathed, but I relied on my family and extracurriculars like theatre to channel my energy and move through it. And books — amazing, amazing books — allow us to see shades of our own experiences in others, and to realize that we’re not alone with our troubles. That’s why YA fiction is so important: it provides a magic mirror into which teens and young adults can fall, experiencing life as someone else or just purely escaping the moment. The ability to see our own thoughts reflected back to us through a book is what makes reading so worthwhile to me.

Here are a few books I never read as a teen — because they didn’t yet exist; because I never found them — but wish I had.

Fat Cat by Robin Brande
Published in 2009

Catherine Locke — ace science student, budding anthopologist — is exactly the type of role model you’d want for a teen girl: funny, independent, intelligent, sassy, forward-thinking. She’s the friend you’d love to have and the student you’d dream of teaching.

But in addition to being a whiz kid and hard worker, Cat faces all the “typical” struggles of being a teenager: the search for acceptance and friendship; being the odd one out in groups; ridicule and self-consciousness about weight and appearances; and, ultimately, the sting of first love. Or unrequited love.

Reading this book at 24, I still found so many awesome lessons to be gained — and think my 14-year-old self would have really loved this one. Cat would have been my hero.

artichokes_heartArtichoke’s Heart by Suzanne Supplee
Published in 2008

Along the same lines as Fat Cat, Suzanne Supplee’s masterful, gorgeous and deeply poetic novel really struck a chord with me. Rosemary works hard, gets great grades in high school and rarely gives her mom a hard time, but her most definable characteristic is, first and foremost, her heavy frame. Rosie finally commits to losing weight, sure, but this is a story about way more than her quest to become thin.

What struck me most about this novel — then and now — was the tender, honest way Supplee portrays a very traumatic event: the critical illness of a parent. Having gone through something similar and grappled with a thousand and one emotions, I saw so much of myself in Rosie — and consider her one of my most favorite characters in all of YA fiction. Buy this one for the teen girls in your life, but don’t pass it along without reading it yourself.

abundance_katherines An Abundance Of Katherines by John Green
Published in 2006

When I fell in and out of love for the first time, I would have benefited from reading some of Green’s prose about a broken-hearted teen boy burnt out on endless (ill-fated) relationships with girls named Katherine. And this novel boasts one of my favorite lines from any book, ever:

“I don’t think you can ever fill the empty space with the thing you lost. … That’s what I realized: if I did get her back somehow, she wouldn’t fill the hole that losing her created.”

I completely believe that had I read that line at 19 or 20 years old, I could have been saved years of wondering and grief after that relationship ended.

True story.

north_of_beautifulNorth Of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley
Published in 2009

When I was gathering novels to donate to flood-ravaged schools in Nashville, this was the first one I grabbed. I can’t think of a more inspirational book than this one, the story of a young woman born with a birthmark across one cheek and a strong love of maps, compasses and art. Terra wants nothing more than to escape the controlling, abusive grip of her maniacal father, and find a free and clear space in which to create her artwork.

Being “branded” with an indelible mark on her face, it’s not until she meets Jacob, a Goth teen of Chinese heritage adopted by a loving American family. Under Jacob’s watchful eye, Terra emerges from the dark corners of her mind enough to bolster up her mother and take the trip of a lifetime. Suddenly, she can move forward and be stronger. She can be better and do more.

Terra is another fantastic role model — a young woman I both sympathize with and for while wishing I could channel some of her strength. This book was so exquisitely written and so moving, and it’s one of those books I wish I could read all over again . . . for the first time. One of my top reads of 2009, it’s not to be missed.

sloppy_firsts Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty
Published in 2001

Oh, Jessica Darling — my hero. A snarky writer, a cynical teen with a soft spot for one unexpectedly fantastic bad boy, a difficult but loyal friend, sister and daughter.

What would my high school years have been like had I read Sloppy Firsts when it was first published my sophomore year? Well, Jess would have been even more of a role model than she already is — being both lovable and prickly, all rolled into one. In so many ways, I feel like Jess is already a real friend.

Of course, I would have spent all my time looking for my own Marcus Flutie. And maybe those hours were better spent trying to pass AP exams.