Jeff Kinney, a member of the class of 1989 at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville and the best-selling author of the “Wimpy Kid” children’s books, returned to his alma mater on Sept. 23. Kinney addressed a student assembly there.  Catholic Standard photos by Jaclyn Lippelmann
Jeff Kinney, a member of the class of 1989 at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville and the best-selling author of the “Wimpy Kid” children’s books, returned to his alma mater on Sept. 23. Kinney addressed a student assembly there. Catholic Standard photos by Jaclyn Lippelmann
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In high school, Jeff Kinney was good at writing and drawing, but swimming – not so much.  He was on Bishop McNamara High School’s first swim team, but “I was so bad they asked me not to be in the photo in the yearbook.” 

The locker room was also freezing, so once he wrapped himself in toilet paper to warm up after swim practice – a scene repeated by 12-year-old Greg Heffley, the main character in Kinney’s hugely popular series of kids books about a middle-schooler trying to fit in, called “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”

Many of the stories in the series, which have sold more than 120 million copies worldwide and made him the best-selling kids author in the United States, come from experiences he had as a student at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Md, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. 

Kinney, a member of Bishop McNamara’s class of 1989, returned to his alma mater on Sept. 23, 25 years after graduating, to talk to the school’s 885 students, including one who now lives in his childhood home in Fort Washington, about how his experiences at McNamara were a great foundation for his future success. 

As he stood before the crowd, that shuffled excitedly on the bleachers in the school gym, he recounted how he drew his first cartoon while at Bishop McNamara and honed the craft of writing in the school’s writing program, which he credits with him getting an “A” in every English class as a college student at the University of Maryland. “I learned here at McNamara that you don’t go out with your first effort, and that writing means rewriting.” 

After his talk, some of the students in the crowd said the main thing they like about Kinney’s “Wimpy Kid” books are that they are funny, and they can relate to the frustrations of being a kid. “I like how honest he is,” said Rachel Leader, a 12th grader. “You read it and think ‘This is how I feel and every other kid feels this way, too.’”  At school, Kinney said he was “an average kid, but I had my wimpy moments.” As an adult, the series of eight books, with another due out in November, and the three movies that have been made of the first three books, have catapulted Kinney to a level of notoriety he never imagined.

Middle school students from neighboring Mount Calvary School also came to hear the author speak. Skyler Hall, a 5th grader at Mount Calvary who was clutching a “Wimpy Kid’ book she hoped Kinney would sign, said she wants to be a pediatrician when she grows up, but after reading the “Wimpy Kid” series, her second career choice is to be a cartoonist.

Kinney, who was been named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2009, got his start cartooning at McNamara when his first cartoon ran in the school’s newspaper. It was about a “mixer” at the school with McNamara (which was  then all-boys) and La Reine High School,  the nearby all-girls Catholic high school that closed in 1992. That experience is also replicated in the “Wimpy Kid’ series. “Please tell me you rent a place for those dances now!” he quipped. 

When he went on to University of Maryland, he ran a popular cartoon called “Igdoof” in the university’s Diamondback newspaper, but after graduating he got a lot of “soul crushing” rejection letters when  trying to syndicate his column, so he turned to writing a book instead. 

He told the students to value their time at Bishop McNamara. “It’s a privilege to go here, which I realized much more after I left,” he said.  “The teachers here had such an impact of my life,” - a couple of whom were in the audience, as well as the ethics he learned at the school “that really helped shape me.”

“If you have a dream, nurture it,” he told the students, “…and one day, if you’re lucky like me, you’ll get to see your idea fly,” he said, while standing in front of an          photograph of a giant balloon of his “Wimpy Kid” character, Greg, floating above New York City in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.