Where I’ve been

Picture of a writing hand


It’s September 3, 2008.  The first day of classes.  8:20 a.m.  As usual, the first day brings a barrage of room and schedule changes, which means I’m not even in my usual classroom.  For more fun, I have a student teacher shadowing me, which means she gets to observe the beginning of this Disney movie as it happens.

I suspected my schedule change was coming; I had been prepped for it the previous day by my lead teacher, who told me a veteran teacher had resigned the previous week.  Was I interested in picking up his class?

“Interested, yes,” I said.  “Qualified?  No.”

“Don’t worry,” she said.  “You’re the most qualified person we have.”

Usually her comments to me are over-the-top effusive.  Today she’s brusque, to the point.  I find it funny to ponder the meaning of the phrase most qualified.  That doesn’t necessarily imply competence.  If there’s only one man on a ship of fools, better make him the captain, even if he’s never been to sea.

I know just enough about this subject to know that I’m not ready to teach it.

Less than an hour earlier, she poked her head into the room to tell me that my schedule had been changed.  My new class meets first period.  We know this is short notice.  We’ll work out the details later.

Walking into the classroom, I recognize a few faces, some of whom I’ve taught before.  All of them are curious.  Why is he here?

I put my bag down, turn to the class, and give them my best everything’s-under-control smile.

“Welcome to Journalism,” I tell them.

And that, friends, is where I’ve been for the past year.  One year ago, I morphed from your basic run-of-the-mill high school English teacher into the newspaper guy.  The J-teacher.  The guy who’s in the lab really late, with a blue pencil tucked behind one ear, a red one in the other, and several reference books in front of him, staring at copy.  A dozen teenagers typing away at their computers, way past deadline.

Wait.  Is it 8 am or 8 a.m.?  Room 4 or Room four?

Oh crap.  Quick, what’s the checklist for libel?  P, H, I, F, F… yep, there it is.  The editor thinks it’s fine.  My principal will kill me if it’s published as is.

Do I let them make this mistake?

“The printer’s jammed again,” rings a voice from across the room.  Better go see.

Yep, this became my life last year.

I still have funny feelings when I bring up my entry into this field to my colleagues.  Compared to many of them, I’m a rank amateur.  I never went to J-school, never really practiced journalism.  Just last fall, three newspapers in our area closed, putting qualified journalists out of work.

And I’m teaching it?

Well, yes I am.

After a year of intensive study, trial by fire and some help from our friends at Poynter’s newsU.org, I’m no longer completely incompetent.  It probably helped that I have a good personality for advising a high school newspaper.  I have a ridiculously wide-ranging set of interests.  I can balance a budget, read and edit quickly, and do some layout.  I don’t flip out over little things – but I do notice them.  I know how to pick my battles.

Most importantly, I can learn.  And I’ve learned a lot of things.

Certainly I’ve become a better writer.  When I look at some of the hack writing I used to produce, it’s amusing.  Thankfully I’ve known for a long time that in order to teach writing, you have to write.  Sadly, it’s only really been in the past year that I’ve truly put that into practice. But I’m happy with the results.

I’ve learned about how to get out of the way.  After copy-editing the first two issues in the proofs, I learned how to get out of the way and let the kids screw things up.  Blunt, perhaps.  But whose name is on top of the paper?  Theirs, not mine.

I’ve learned about the great work that kids across the nation produce. In addition to my usual newspaper reading, I’ve added titles like The A-BlastThe Spoke. Silver ChipsThe Granite Bay GazetteThe Remarker.  Ever read these?  You should.  The writing that’s produced by the top student newspapers in the country can be as fresh, vibrant and significant as any professional paper.

And I’ve learned that many people just don’t get it.  My first year as an adviser was the last year for one of the nation’s best.  Barb Thill, former adviser of the Statesman at Stevenson High School, resigned in the wake of controversy surrounding an article on teenage sexual practices.  In an editorial, the Chicago Tribune called the reporting “thorough and thoughtful, exceptionally well-written.”  And it had people screaming for her head.  She resigned rather than continue advising with a formal prior review process and increased administrative oversight.

Could I do that?

If I do my job well, and my kids write well, do I risk losing my job?

That’s where I’ve been.  I don’t know where I’m going, except that I know that if I teach writing, I have to write.  I envy those people who have the compulsion to write – who write because there’s a fire in their soul that compels them to create words.  I’ve never been that person.

As a writer, I’m the shooting star.  The comet who burns brightly – but only on occasion, then disappears.  I need to be the North Star.

Sure I’ve a stack of papers on my desk, lessons to plan, and – oh yes –a child to parent. More on the way.

But I have to write.


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