Sally James: Stories of Year 12

Apr 7, 2023 | Guest Contributor, Town Crier

Today’s blog post is written by Sally James, Town Hall’s Spring 2023 Scholar-in-Residence. Learn more about Town Hall residencies here.


I’m collecting stories. Thank you, Town Hall, for giving me a residency where I can focus on these stories. I’m collecting stories from people about what they remember from when they were 12 years old. Do you have any vivid memories of that year?

Maybe you remember getting braces or growing taller. Maybe you remember a big news story that upset your parents.

During that pivot, we begin to open the bubble of childhood and notice things we didn’t notice before. Not just other kids, but adult comments that land heavily on us.

That’s what happened for New York Times bestselling author Laurel Braitman. She shared a story with me when she was in town to be on stage here in March.

Her rabbi came over to the house while the family was planning her Bat Mitzvah, a Jewish coming-of-age ritual and party. He asked her, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But he asked it so seriously that she was inspired and felt he genuinely wanted this prediction. She told him she wanted to write about animals, travel, and work for National Geographic. Even now, all these years later, she remembers that he took in her words and said “Sounds pretty reasonable.”

Years later, she watched an old VHS recording of the Rabbi’s speech from the ceremony. In it, he talked about how she was named for a tree, and like a tree becoming a book, that trees are sources of knowledge.

“It was so beautiful and so kind to believe in a 12-year-old who had never met a writer …  By taking the dream of a 12-year-old seriously, it gave me license to take my own dreams seriously. And I don’t know, that must have gotten into my subconscious. I couldn’t have told you he told me that without discovering this film recently, but I know he did. And that was profound.”

(If you don’t know, Laurel is a science writer who has written about many animals and teaches writing at Stanford Medical School. Learn about her talk at Town Hall and pick up a copy of her new book, What Looks Like Bravery, here.)

Share your story with me here.

—Sally James


Be sure to join us at Town Hall on Friday, April 28, for our free Artist- and Scholar-in-Residence Scratch Night!

[Photo: A group of berry pickers at Newton’s Farm, Bridgeville, Del. By Lewis Hine, 1910. National Child Labor Committee collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.]

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