On the road to Raleigh, signs whiz past my window:
"Peanut Brittle and Pecans..."
"...Seashells and Pirate Booty."
When I was little, my family drove north every summer. We rose before the sun, loaded the station wagon with grocery bags of bottled water and granola bars, and cruised I-95 nonstop until we hit North Carolina, our midway point. Lying in the backseat, I watched the landscape flicker like a slideshow. Pines softened and stretched into oaks. Marshes thickened into hills dotted with cattle. I kept an eye peeled for Pedro, the sombrero-clad cartoon on countless billboards, advertising the sprawling truck stop, "South of the Border." (where we bought fireworks by the crate load and posed for Polaroid snapshots behind the mini golf course).
This time, it wasn't summer vacation.
I visited two schools in North Carolina. The first was Salem Middle School, where I spent the day speaking to different classes in an auditorium. The kids asked a few familiar questions, like, "Do you have a boyfriend?" and "How much money do you make?" Most of all, they wanted to know, "What were you like in school?"
"I was a big geek," I mumbled into my "karaoke-style" microphone. A few shaggy boys thrust their fists in the air and shouted, "Yes!" They asked if I liked video games (You bet...especially old-school Nintendo like Zelda and Metroid) and if I read comic books (Of course!...My faves were always the indie series by Warp graphics, Dark Horse, and manga, before anybody knew the meaning of the word).
A dark-eyed girl raised her hand. She asked in a voice so feathery soft, I almost didn’t hear: "How did you deal with bullies?"
I watched her, watching me. At first, I let her know..."Look. You're going to be out of here soon."
Her face drooped. She’s probably heard that a thousand times.
I tried again. "I used to hide in the band room..." I said, and a bunch of people laughed and said, "Me too. Me too." I said, "You need to find a way to channel that pent-up energy into something positive. Get it out of your system. Write crazy poetry. Draw graphic novels. Go home and play Halo-3 if that helps..." (more applause) "Otherwise you'll go crazy."
I scanned the faces peering down at me---the uniform of zipped-up hoodies and side-parted bangs.
I didn't have all the answers, but they listened anyway.
During my lunch break, I wondered if I could sneak into the cafeteria and hang with the kids. Instead, I sat in the librarian's lounge, which smelled like potpourri (thanks to the Spice Market tea they special-ordered from Seattle). My guardian angel, Teresa, the event coordinator, fetched a salad for me. The other ladies swapped recipes and chatted about soccer practice. I tried to dish about Sarah Dessen, one of my favorite YA goddesses (who happens to hail from Chapel Hill), but they just smiled and said, "She's a very nice person." (no stalker-gossip, like, "How does she take her tea?")
It felt strange, walking through the hallway at the day's end, listening to the bell clanging as kids raced around corners, dragging their backpacks. All those gleaming rows of lockers. If I stood still and closed my eyes, I could still remember the numbers on my hot pink lock--the one our principal sawed off because it broke the color code.
The next morning, I took a taxi to a magnet school called Ligon (pronounced, "Liggon," not "Lie-gun," as I had called it). I spotted a banner with my name on it, hanging in the library. Only two sessions, but the kids had enough energy to last all day. Everybody was working on different activities---from the dance class watching a video of West Side Story, to the future graphic designers hunched over glowing laptops, to my new friend, Rocky (short for Veronika) and her comic book about a gun-toting wombat.
"I've got a lot of crap in here," she told me, flipping through her doodle-infested notebook.
"Stuff. You have stuff." Her teacher scowled.
During my presentation, a boy in the front row couldn't sit still. He raised his hand nonstop and asked a dozen random questions. When somebody asked if I had brothers and sisters, I said, "Yeah. I'm the baby of the family."
The boy blinked. "You got a baby?" he shouted at top volume.
At this point, his teacher grabbed him by the shirt and dragged him into the back row.
"No baby-daddies around here," I said, and the class exploded with laughter.
After talking about my ever-changing OCD habits, everybody wanted to share their own quirky habits.
"I always jump the last step on my staircase," said one girl.
The back-row boy was still raising his hand. He reminded me of Thayer in my book, another kid exploding with energy (and a busy imagination). "Hey, aren't you in trouble?" I joked, and he beamed a smile at me.
"It's cool," he said.
And it was.
That night, I signed copies of Total Constant Order at Quail Ridge Books and Music, following a local SCBWI chapter's witty discussion on publishing modern day mythology. I read from Fin's online diary, surprised to see grown-up faces, each time I lifted my gaze from the pages. Somebody's bored-looking husband slouched in a chair and thumbing through a paperback (the kind with glossy, raised letters, like Braille, no doubt, a suspense novel). He dropped it into his lap while I read (which I consider a personal triumph).
Afterwards, I chatted with my cousin, Jennifer, (who teaches at Duke and named her little girl, Elizabeth Virginia, after Woolf). A couple ladies approached me. They wanted to share their own teenaged memories (like teaching the basketball team how to exhale the perfect smoke ring)...and they asked, "How do you remember what it's like?"
I shook my head. "Remember what?"
"Remember what it's like to be fifteen."
I hadn't thought about it before.
In fact, I had never forgotten.