By Lauren Brown West-Rosenthal
I think it’s only fair that since my stories won’t always be told in chronological order. So, let’s go back in time with a brief overview of my early days as a “wannabe” overachiever. I grew up in the suburbs of Miami and was the oldest of three siblings. I always loved words and stories. I’d wow my family by memorizing my books at two-years-old to make everyone think I could read. By the time I was six, I’d filled dozens of notebooks with short stories and outlines of ideas. And, at ten, I wrote “bonus” chapters to my Sweet Valley High books. I told everyone it was because I was too impatient to wait for the next book in the series to come out. But, truthfully? I was pissed that Todd Wilkins moved away and I really hated Elizabeth Wakefield’s new boyfriend Jeffrey. So, naturally, I had a few changes to make—and I loved that word started to spread around my elementary school that I wrote Sweet Valley High books. I never corrected anyone and being the unofficial “writer” of my school was a label I took seriously. So seriously that no one could encroach upon my territory. So imagine my disdain when a friend wanted to cash in on my acclaim and started writing bonus chapters to The Babysitters Club! I’m pretty sure I told our fourth grade teacher that she plagiarized my idea. That innate drive to succeed showed up at an early age and it scared me. I did NOT have parents who put any sort of pressure on us. If anything, they were perfectly happy with us being “average” as long as we graduated college, got a job and could support ourselves. It was a healthy approach—happiness was the ultimate goal my parents had for their kids. Any pressure to go bigger and harder came 100% from me and me alone.
In high school, I found a mentor—and it was probably one of the last times I actively sought one out (big mistake, more on that coming in a future post)—in my 11th grade AP English teacher, Mrs. Kjos. She turned me on to the essay writings of Nora Ephron and even referred to me as “Nora, Jr.” It was a moniker I still am proud of—and I even shared it with Nora herself the one and only time I briefly met her in my 20s. Mrs. Kjos really propelled me to take writing seriously and act like writing was already my job even though I’d yet to get published. So, with her encouragement, I became the editor-in-chief of my high school paper, The Crusader, during senior year.
My high school was notorious for having one of the WORST school newspapers in the county—it was nonexistent. Between my freshman and junior years, only two issues of The Crusader were printed. I was up for the challenge of being editor-in-chief and took on the even bigger challenge of resurrecting the paper into a monthly, must-read. It DID come out each month I served as editor-in-chief—but not without a lot of drama. Who knew it was a glimpse into my future in publishing? The pressures of leading a team and being responsible for every last word that went to print really burned me out. I took my duties seriously and did my best to represent my school as editor-in-chief on and off campus.
But, things blew up in my face when I was given “classified information” about the terrible reading scores my school received in via statewide testing. I had the bright idea to write an essay in The Miami Herald’s “Student Corner” on the importance of reading, the lack of importance many of my direct peers placed on it and tied it all together by publicly citing and therefore shaming my school for their failing test scores.
I was proud of myself for writing something with depth and of great importance—something that could incite real change. And, I’ll be honest, I felt like this was my Brandon Walsh/Andrea Zuckerman/”Donna Martin Graduates” moment in high school journalism.
Especially when the piece came out and I was almost expelled.
I’d never even served detention and there I was in the Vice Principal’s office, begging for mercy. I guess the info I received wasn’t meant for public eyes—and definitely not meant for publication in one of the country’s biggest newspapers! Thankfully, I managed to avoid getting expelled—so it never sunk in that I did anything that bad! It was the first but not last time I was blissfully ignorant about the level of big trouble I should have been in. Thanks to a divine intervention of some sort, I’ve emerged unscathed several times. I’ll be revealing through these stories how the early days of my career were built on close calls.
As I finished up my senior year as editor-in-chief and got ready to head off to the University of South Florida, I was bestowed a prestigious honor and became my high school’s nominee for a Silver Knight award in the Journalism category. In Miami, The Silver Knights are like the Academy Awards for high school academia. I was positive at least an “honorable mention” was mine because I was the hero who resurrected my school’s dormant newspaper. Never mind that my grades were average and my community service (a big factor in receiving the award) was nothing special. I was SURE I was winning SOMETHING and POSITIVE that NOT WINNING was the WORST thing that ever could and would ever happen to me. I’d be a fraud and need to rethink my entire future. I’d never get a job or internship. How could I start college without this honor? I’d be ruined before I even began.
Did I mention I can be a tiny bit of a drama queen?
Yeah, so, it’s likely no shock that I couldn’t handle it when my best friend won an “honorable mention” in the Drama category. She totally deserved it—she started an entire theater workshop for underprivileged kids plus won awards for plays she acted in all over the state of Florida.
I did not win anything.
I cried after all the awards were given out. And when my best friend came running over to me after the ceremony, I ignored her like a total brat and nearly ended our friendship.
PS: I got over it and we were even bridesmaids in each others’ weddings.
Can We Get Real?
– The fact that I actually thought that Sweet Valley High creator Francine Pascal needed my “bonus” chapters to make her work “complete” shows that I was slightly delusional and plagued with a false sense of confidence. This has been helpful and harmful in my career—especially when first starting out.
– Maybe I should have run it by a teacher, my newspaper adviser, heck even the janitor before I went ahead and revealed the contents of sensitive and confidential documents in a public forum? I’m lucky I graduated and wasn’t expelled . . . I also cannot emphasize enough the importance of checking in with your managers often JUST TO MAKE SURE YOU’RE ON TRACK! Not sure about something? Pop by their desk, ambush them in the elevator, shoot them an after hours email . . . if you have a nagging sense of doubt, do whatever it takes to put it at ease before it’s too late!
– It’s never been on my resume that I was a Silver Knight nominee—even after ALL that drama. Even after being positive at 17-years-old that my world and career was done. So, for those of you in high school and college? Dream big, go after big honors, titles, awards and accolades . . . but if you don’t receive them or you do but they’re not what you expected —don’t let it stop you from pushing forward. I burned out in high school because I worked and worried too much. Today, I wish I’d gone to more football games or snuck out with my friends to parties—because 20+ years later and I’m STILL working hard, just with a lot more at stake!
Lauren Brown West-Rosenthal is the Storyteller-in-Chief of her site The Not So It Girl, sharing lessons learned from her career in media as a writer/editor (and more) over the past 20 years. She gets real about her experiences at outlets ranging from CosmoGIRL! and Glamour to MTV and Sirius Satellite Radio—and recounts painfully true stories (such as how/why reality stars got her fired and declaring bankruptcy at 30) to dole out career advice and create camaraderie. Follow @thenotsoitgirl on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter—and read my full bio here!