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Book Review: Little Miss Merit Badge: A Memoir by Ronda Beaman

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Do you remember the girl in your school (doesn’t matter what school, what age) who everyone knew because she was a big winner? Maybe the girl was the one who won all the spelling bees, got the highest standardized test score, sold the most Girl Scout cookies, earned the most badges — in fact, so many badges she needed two sashes to hold them all … you get the picture. Some would say that girl had an “accomplishment addiction.”

Author Ronda Beaman, in her memoir Little Miss Merit Badge, describes the parental attention-disorder environment that bred such an addiction in her at a young age. Her parents were extremely good looking, and her father had been captain of the high school basketball team, used to adulation. But sometime after their high school graduation, her parents got married with baby Ronda on the way. From the word go, Ronda (and subsequent siblings) was in an unknowing competition with her father for attention. She compensated by becoming overly ambitious.

Beaman writes with humor and empathy, both for herself and other members of her family, even as she provides the reader with clear examples of why she never knew what would come out of her father’s mouth next. He once told fourth-grade Ronda, who was worrying about taking America’s Math Proficiency Exam, that everyone has an IQ, even her. The memoir is rife with examples of her father’s backhanded compliments and mean or thoughtless comebacks to the most innocent of comments. Ronda and her siblings had to be careful not to get too excited or show too much emotion about anything for fear of being put down for it. “The decree by which we all were governed was that no one in our family could be smarter, funnier, better looking, or more well-liked than my father.”

Imagine being that girl and feeling the need to prove yourself every few months because your family kept moving — two, three, four times a year, say. You had no chance to develop long-lasting relationships, and the father who was causing all those moves kept giving you mixed messages about your worth. The more Ronda was denied reassurance or success, the harder she strove for it. One year her resourcefulness in collecting S&H Green stamps, cereal box tops, and Bazooka Joe comics (all redeemable for prizes she could sell or trade up from) resulted in funding her own way to Girl Scout Camp for a week.

Beaman is forthright about her own misdeeds. Perhaps you can forgive young Ronda for faking as many successes as she actually achieved. “My first badge attempt was keeping a diary to earn the Write All About It badge … I lied on every page … I like to think of my fiction as early signs of creativity. With sheer pluck and perspicacity I wrote about the life I wanted, rather than the life I had.”

Beaman has organized the chapters in her memoir around the names of twelve of the badges earned during her time in the Scouts. In a life-changing scene, seventh-grade Ronda learns that she is not invincible and cannot rely on fakery to get true companionship and self-respect. She starts working on earning a Healthy Relationships badge. This can be difficult if you mark the passage of time with phrases like “about three houses ago” and can honestly say your earlier childhood did not include a true mentor, role model, or good friend.

Thankfully, through the moral compass experiences provided early on by Girl Scouts and through careful, intelligent observation of what worked and what didn’t work, Beaman built a good life for herself and others. She reflects on the paths people’s lives take: “It’s as if everyone is born with an empty [Scout] sash … and we each get to choose which badges we merit and which badges we rebuff due to lack of interest, desire, talent, or capability.”

She goes on to conclude, “I discovered integrity, truth, hard work, goals, and commitment within the circle of each Girl Scout badge. But it is outside the circumference of the badges that I faced even more rigorous requirements: among them, forgiveness, compassion, love, courage, resilience, faith, and steadfast hope … It took years to understand that I could never have what was inside each [badge] until I secured what lay outside of them. And what was outside those badges was not my father, my family, or any troop, what lay outside was my life.”

Continuing her penchant for getting meritorious things accomplished, Beaman was the first person in her family to finish college, summa cum laude at that, and later earned her master’s and doctorate degrees and became a professor. (Her father commented that he “always thought professors had to be smart.”) She raised two sons as a single parent, was named mother of USA Today’s Most Creative Family, and was an active Board member of the Pay It Forward Foundation. She is now Chief Creative Officer at PEAK Learning, a director of leadership studies at California Polytechnic University, an international speaker, and a fitness coach. Little Miss Merit Badge is Ronda Beaman’s first memoir and second book. Her first book was You’re Only Young Twice: 10 Do-Overs to Reawaken Your Spirit. (Full disclosure: Though I’ve never met Ronda Beaman, I was the lucky publisher of her first book, now being sold by Quick Publishing.)

I’m highly recommending the book. I’d be remiss not to mention there are a number of copyediting errors, but the writing is highly entertaining and the messages are timeless. This is a great gift book for friends and family, and a definite candidate for lively group discussions.

Little Miss Merit Badge includes book club questions and an invitation to have the author appear at book club or troop meetings (in person or via Skype, phone, or Twitter). Visit her website for ideas and giveaways. There is even a Facebook app called The Merit Badge Project app where you can earn badges of your own. And a YouTube video.

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About Meredith Ann Rutter