The young woman sitting next to me scrunched up her face as she looked at a resume I would have killed for at her age. She had three internships, including one at a major media outlet and a second at a center for investigative journalism. She was the editor of her paper and had earned honors and awards along the way. Still, she had that look.
“I just hope I get a job,” she said. “It’s rough out there…”
I half smiled as I shook my head and told her, “You’re going to be fine. You have a ton of great experience. We just need to rearrange a few things to put the emphasis on the best stuff first…”
I suggested moving a few things around, emphasizing professional experience and pushing her college work down. We talked about her social media presence and if it would be something that would showcase her journalism or if it fit the “I ate a hot dog today. It was good.” motif. I told her I knew her boss and that he didn’t hire crappy people, so that should help her feel better about herself and that she should ask if he would be a reference for her.
In the end, she seemed to feel better and thanked me for my time.
“You’ll be fine,” I told her again, emphasizing each word. “You’ll be just fine.”
I’ve spent the last two weekends working with student journalist at a variety of conventions, which is one of the best things I do in life. Last week, it was Minnesota’s best of the Midwest convention while this week, we convened for a pro/college hybrid for the best journalism the state has to offer.
Being around people “like me” is usually a comfort to most humans, in that we enjoy social gatherings that emphasize shared, learned behavior. Even more, we tend to understand each other better when we have chewed some of the same dirt. As Eddie Murphy once remarked about marriage, “Find the perfect person for you. I’m not saying they’re perfect. Find someone just as fucked up as you are in the same way and settle down.”
Still, this convention was one I had dreaded for a number of reasons. First, I’m running the board of the college group, which means I need to show up, dress sharp and schmooze with people, all things that don’t really thrill me. Second, it’s like Bill Buckner walking back into Shea Stadium for me in many ways.
The people I know there knew the much younger version of me: The one who fucked up a lot. The one who bordered on arrogance and then swung to a complete lack of self-esteem. The one who was probably the annoying kid they wished would learn to calm down a little more and not be so excited over every police scanner call. It’s painful thinking back about that “me” and it’s even more difficult realizing how long ago that was.
The kid I helped work through her resume was someone I probably would have never dealt with back then. She worked at the Badger Herald. I’m from the Daily Cardinal. Capulet and Montague don’t have shit on that turf war. However, as I talked with her a bit, it dawned on me she wasn’t even born when I was a college journalist. The dislike I have for her institution remains, but for some reason, it wasn’t as hard as I would have once thought it to be when I helped her plan out Life 2.0.
Later that day, I walked through the exhibit hall, and I ran across a guy I worked with back when I was a night-desk reporter. Andy now runs that center for investigative journalism at which this kid was interning. When he noticed me, he stopped what he was doing to say hi and prepared to introduce me to the folks gathered around him.
One of the people who turned around was another former newspaper staff who remembered me and gave me a huge hug. It turns out Pat had retired from the paper during one of the rounds of “downsizing” efforts and was now teaching at a small, private college and advising the paper. I told her, “We need to get you onto our board…” before explaining what it is I was doing and what our college group was all about.
She had this look on her face, and I couldn’t really figure it out. It was half amazement and half pride.
“Yeah,” Andy chimed in. “He’s all grown up now…”
I laughed. He just smiled.
He remembered how excited I was the time he offered to buy me a six-pack of beer if I’d take some mundane assignment he’d been given. Andy was happy he could go on his vacation without worry. I was thrilled: You mean I’ll get some extra hours, mileage money, a story in the paper AND BEER? Holy shit!
I didn’t know if Pat remembered the time she and I were working on a Sunday together and two stories had rolled in: Racist literature was found in a news rack at a grocery store and major vandalism had hit the area Walgreens. She was coming in later and I had half of each story and I hoped she’d let me keep one. When she arrived, she told me, “Take them both. I’m working on something else.” It was like a day of free ice cream. I can still remember thinking to myself, “Wow. I’ve got TWO STORIES in the paper today. This is unbelievable.”
Back then, moments like those were the world to me. For them, it was just another day of work.
After I left Andy’s booth, I wandered over to the walls of poster board that contained the award-winning work of journalists throughout the state. Not more than a minute of browsing went by before something grabbed me: A column with a familiar face staring back at me. The hair was more professionally cut, the cheeks a bit fuller but I knew the half-grimace that stared back at me.
One of my former students: First place for local sports column.
I backed up and started from the very first board, carefully examining each byline.
Second Place: Environmental writing
Third Place: Business coverage
First Place: Local education coverage
Third Place: Feature Writing
More and more of the names came back to me. Scared kids, wondering if they’d ever get an internship. Wondering if they’d get a job. Wondering if they’d be any good.
Professional journalists, all. Award-winners to boot.
My eyes settled on the last panel where the college winners were and found one bittersweet moment:
First place, News/news features.
The kid who wrote it was my editor during last year’s run of crushing misery. She stuck with me through thick and thin, knowing her life would be so much easier if she just asked me to quit. Instead, she hunkered down and dealt with the pounding, just like I had. In the end, though, she couldn’t take it anymore.
She dropped out of school, refusing to return for her senior year. She moved on to the tech school last semester, where she hopes to earn a degree that will let her work as a nursing assistant. She never wants to be in journalism again.
She wrote a personal experience feature story on Project Semicolon, a movement that started in 2013 after founder Amy Bleuel lost her father to suicide. Bleuel also struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts, so she looked for a way to communicate that struggle to others in hopes of shedding light on these mental illness issues. The non-profit organization uses the semi-colon as a symbol of how you are the author of your life and authors choose how to end a sentence. The semi-colon says, “I’m pausing here, but I will choose to continue.” Many people who back the movement get a tattoo of a semi-colon as a way of reinforcing this belief.
Katie’s piece wove her own struggles into the broader story of Project Semi-Colon, which was started only about an hour’s drive from here. The narrative thread was her decision to get the tattoo and to share that moment with her mother.
I could feel the tears welling up as I started to read the story, so I just moved on and took a breath.
A great moment. A great kid. The one I couldn’t save.
My career choice often leaves me with mixed emotions. I think back to the most stinging comment people make about educators: “Those who can’t do, teach.” There are days I think maybe they’re right. Could I have stuck with journalism for 22 years and done more and better things than I did? Maybe I’m that tragic tale of wasted youth, the human vessel of lost potential I now try to drag out of other people as some sort of penance for my own transgressions…
Then there are days like yesterday, where I see how the kids who once pondered their own inadequacies are tearing it up at various publications in places they want to be. I see it in every “noun-verb” attribution they use and how I pounded that into them. I see it in their commitment to fairness and accuracy. I see it when they email me to ask, “Hey, I don’t know if you remember me, but I was a student of yours and you really helped me out a ton… I’m looking for an intern and I was hoping you had one of your kids to help me fill the slot…”
Those days, I see myself as a good farmer: I take those little seeds and put them in the best soil I have, tend them the best I can and then watch them grow to fruition. I help make sure the seedlings get what they need to survive. I realize how important this is now more than ever, in a field littered with cutbacks, high stress and public malice toward the profession.
Maybe that’s a good way to look at this.
I sow some of these seeds of hope for journalism.
And sometimes, it’s important to step back and enjoy the garden.