I learned more at sleepovers than I ever did sitting in class in junior high. That was obvious when the first grade cards came out. I had gone to a private grade school so 7th grade was my first exposure to the real, unprotected world. I thought it was fabulous.

One Friday night in the middle of the fall I was invited to a bunking party. A dozen giggling girls prank called the cute boys we would never have the courage talk to at school while downing enough food to supply the Wild Bill Cody’s snack shop. We talked hours about what seemed important, trying to figure out who we were. None of us really know who we are at 13. We may think we do, but then the next day or the next hour or whenever hormones drop or surge, it changes.

About midnight someone pulled out a package of cigarettes she had taken from her mother’s purse. I thought she was so daring and cool and stupid. What was she thinking? One by one my friends lit up. Obviously this was not their first smoke.

What harm was there in having just one? Coughing and gagging I crushed out the cigarette just in time to make it to the pink toilet. A first cigarette after too much junk food was a disastrous combo. I was so not daring and cool.

That’s all it took. My smoking days were over. I learned a lot that night about trust, honesty, prank calls and cigarettes, but mostly cigarettes. My mom started smoking out of boredom at 27 when dad was in dental school studying most nights. My brother tried smoking in junior high too, but he kept on smoking. I think my dad took up cigarettes just after he started walking.

Mom died with emphysema 10 years ago. My brother died from a sudden heart attack two years ago. Even though he gave up cigarettes 35 years ago, last week Dad was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Smoking is taking out my childhood family one by one.

Sometimes a little embarrassment teaches a powerful lesson and for that I’m grateful. Maybe some of the most important things aren’t learned in the classroom after all.

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