Young Laura was a cherubic pig-tailed girl who loved reading, cats, and huffing fresh ink from the Sunday edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
It was the late 80s, deep in the resplendent suburbs, and I had turned seven. Even at that young age, I was already a rabid, wild-eyed news junkie. By the time I had entered the third grade, my tastes had matured from devouring new editions of The Babysitters Club to devouring weekly episodes of 60 Minutes. While other kids were idolizing Mike Schmidt and Whitney Houston, I was developing tween-girl feelings towards Sam Donaldson and Tom Brokaw. I spent weekends poring through editions of The Philadelphia Inquirer, marveling at the bulk of newsprint — all of the world’s knowledge and events archived here, on paper, in stark black and white.
I highlighted mountains of articles and clipped important ledes from the paper’s pages, stuffing them into a blue Converse shoebox to fester until that day they would become necessary to answer a question or win an argument.
As the years went by, a steady diet of The Mary Tyler Moore Show reruns nurtured my flourishing news fetish. Instead of musicians or a new pair of trendy jelly shoes, I daydreamed of news rooms bustling with intrepid journalists wielding notepads or hard-nosed studio bosses with hearts of gold, just like Lou Grant. Philly’s own Monica Malpass and Dave Roberts on 6 ABC ascended to god status in my adolescent world. I hung on Bryant Gumbel’s every word when the Today show appeared on my parents’ television each morning. The Today show theme song still gives me chills decades later.
And I was absolutely obsessed with the possibility that I could, one day, appear in a newspaper.
The thought of an shrewd and ingenious journalist interviewing me, distilling my very words — my very essence — into a six-paragraph profile elicited “special” feelings within me. Secretly, I imagined the distinguished Woodward and Bernstein visiting me at school and drafting a national news story about me. I longed for an indelible two-page account of the one-and-only Laura Maggio to join the hallowed annals of written human history. Forever.
It wasn’t just written copy that gripped my fancy. I also fantasized about my likeness being captured in a photograph and published in The New York Times. My heartbeat quickened imagining my neighbors, family, and friends marveling over my image, reproduced thousands of times, while eating breakfast at their kitchen tables.
Vowing to make the front page of any newspaper, I entered into the most sacred of adolescent commitments: A stark one-line entry in my pink diary securely bolted with an impenetrable 50-cent lock:
I will get into the newspaper, if it’s the last thing I do.
The opportunity to fulfill that very wish arrived on “Dress as your Favorite Character Day” at Edgeford Elementary School.
The day momentarily distracted me from my media dreams. My mind raced, mulling over the endless possibilities of all the characters I idolized. I considered which character most deserved the honor and contemplated which one would require the most elaborate and attention-getting costume. I finally settled on my favorite non-journalistic hero, Paul Revere – who I figured counted as a “character” because some guy wrote a poem about him once.
The fateful day arrived, and it seemed the student body gasped in unison as I sauntered into the school. After all, I was the only student who dared to ride the school bus wearing buckle shoes, britches, and a three-cornered hat purchased from William Penn’s house museum gift shop. Added bonus: I was the only student brazen enough to cross-dress.
The excitement in my fifth-grade classroom that morning was at a fevered pitch on account of the day’s theme, plus a pot-luck lunch complete with questionable-looking homemade cupcakes for dessert.
The exhilaration and noise in the classroom increased ten-fold when a guest arrived.
“Attention students,” announced our teacher, Mrs. Goldman. “Let’s welcome our guest, Josh Werner, a reporter from the Yardley Herald.”
I froze – too star-struck to even breathe. I knew it! There’s no way an actual reporter wouldn’t be assigned to cover the hottest scoop in our white-collar town — Character Day at Edgeford Elementary School! I stared at the man wearing a tan photog’s vest with my mouth agape and full of Mark Lander’s mother’s famous watermelon cupcake. Although I suspect it’s a false memory inspired by an episode of The Brady Bunch, I recall this stalwart of American journalism donning a fedora with a card that read “Scoop” tucked inside the brim.
After observing the chaos in the classroom for a bit, Josh Werner addressed the class in a mighty voice, brimming with truth, and principle, and journalistic righteousness.
“I need your attention, students,” he announced.
He then began pointing at a few chosen children wearing the most elaborate, most precious or most creative costume.
“You characters, line up in front of the chalkboard,” he said.
My pulse quickened as Mr. Werner pointed at me. I scurried to the chalkboard, sending a silent prayer up to my inspiration, Paul Revere.
“Smile!” Mr. Werner commanded as he pointed his camera — the very portal to the fame and fortune that I sought — toward our beaming faces. “You’re going to be in the Yardley Herald!”
Ten-year-old Laura nearly fainted. This was it! My big break! My face would grace the cover of the biggest paper in town – the Yardley Herald! Life could only go downhill from here.
The following week was agony.
Young Laura waited for interminable days as the weekly paper was written, formatted, and printed. I couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t eat. Couldn’t speak. The anticipation of my media debut gripped my very soul.
Publication day finally arrived, and I somehow secured a copy of the paper. I waited until after school to read it, wanting to experience my debut in the privacy of my room, undisturbed and undiluted by any siblings or commoners. After racing home from school, I ran up the stairs, slammed my bedroom door shut, and dug the neatly folded broadsheet from out of my bookbag.
After flipping pages for ages, I found what I sought, buried in the back section that covered local golf outings and PTA meetings. The headline blared: 5th Grade at Edgeford Elementary: A Class of Characters.
A black and white photograph sat below the bold headline. Young Laura’s eyes searched the photo, searched again. Her stomach sank. Her blood turned icy as a fury rose up from her toes that she had not yet experienced in her young life. This wasn’t a photo of the entire chalk-board lineup! It was a close-up of Carey McSavage in her costume!
I assessed Carey, cheeks freckled with eyebrow pencil, and wild braided pig-tails that stood straight out.
“Pippi fucking Longstocking!?” I bellowed as rage overtook me.
I tore the entire newspaper in two, crumpled each half in shaking fists and threw the offending rubbish across the room.
The wrath of a ten-year-old girl is not to be trifled with.
Josh Werner promised the group shot would be published! Why would a reporter choose to print a photo of one child and deprive the group of my be-costumed peers from the glory we so rightly deserved?
That dark day forever changed me.
It was the first time I recognized that an adult told me something that was not true. Josh Werner said we would all be in the paper, but it was a filthy lie. And if one reporter from a local newspaper lied, I began to suspect that all the news goliaths I admired and trusted lied as well. My world shattered as I realized I should not believe everything I encountered in my beloved newspapers and broadcasts.
My trust in adults, in journalism, and in the lofty ideals of an elementary school student shattered that day.
Young Laura lost interest in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and buried her Converse shoebox full of newspaper clippings in a shallow grave near the creek. The names Edward R. Murrow and Barbara Walters died on her lips and would never be uttered again with the same sort of reverence.
On that day, Young Laura experienced such dark disappointment, survived such indignities that her youth was forever gone — a tarry, pitch-black grudge taking its place.
Fast forward 30 years.
Life these past few decades has been – admittedly — joyous. The delights of the present have nearly obscured my dark past and lifelong grudge toward Josh Werner and The Great Photo Snub of 1989. I have mostly kept my erstwhile publicity hound bound and chained, deep within.
Today I received an email announcing that the historical musical group I volunteer with was featured on the front page of the since bought-out Yardley Herald.
Had redemption finally arrived? Would my likeness finally grace the pages of the Yardley Herald? The desperate spark hidden deep within me blazed.
With the familiar hit of adrenaline I lived for as an adolescent news junkie, I clicked the link to the photo of the newspaper my band-mate had sent. Slowly, the pixels sharpened, and an image materialized. A vivid group photo of my fife and drum corps finally appeared on the screen.
Delight washed over me, cleansing my soul of my life-long photo-snub grudge.
Focusing in closer, Old Laura’s eyes searched the photo. And searched once more, looking for my face.
My stomach sank. My blood turned icy as a fury rose up from my toes that I hadn’t felt in 30 years.
Although I recognized my three-cornered hat, britches, and torso — my face was obscured by another band member’s hand.
The air went out of me as my rage-blurred eyes scanned farther below the picture:
Photo by Josh Werner.