Saturday, April 30, 2011

Out of the Mouths

I am lucky to see old students from time to time. I get to see my last class every day as they are all still living and learning together in one 4th grade classroom with my friend Tameka. Older kids wander back occasionally as well. We have a semi-regular alumni day and I catch up with a few former students then. Sometimes an old student is back in town and just stops by to see how much smaller everything seems, how much older their 2nd and 3rd grade teacher is. It's fun when they stop by during the school day and my current group of kids ask them questions. "What was Mr. O. like back in the day? What songs do you remember singing? Did you guys have a pet turtle in your classroom?" You know, the really important stuff.

Well, one of my former students is in 8th grade in the middle school, right next door to our little school. His little sister is in my class. We see each other almost every day. He and his sister ride home together and when she sees him she throws her arms around her big brother and gives him a big old hug. He is a little self-conscious, but he hugs her right back. It's sweet.

Sometimes Little Sister and I wait for him to walk by while we are eating in the middle school cafeteria and Big Brother is changing classes. When he glances in we make a funny face at him. He smiles and rushes on to class. He is a big, handsome boy - nearly a man. But when I see him walking those middle school halls, I remember that cute, precocious, little guy he was.

On a related subject - I read Brad Warthen's blog regularly (see my blog roll). He used to write for the Op-Ed page of The State newspaper. I will never understand why they cut him loose. He was one of the best parts of the paper. I used to regularly read Brad's pieces to my students when Big Brother was in our class, 6 years ago. Our class went on a field study to the newspaper when Brad was still working there and, as luck would have it, we were able to interview Mr. Warthen spontaneously as he walked by our reporter friend Czerne Reid's desk.

I found this old blog post of his when he was still working for The State and will repost it here (I hope Brad doesn't mind - I'm still a big fan, Brad!). The child he describes as the little tow-headed boy is Big Brother to my sweet child, the young man I still see almost every day, the young man who I KNOW is going to change the world for the better.

Thursday, 19 May 2005

Out of the mouths

The headline on the centerpiece of this morning's front page, "Fast learners, little Skywalkers are," reminded of a really great thing that happened to me yesterday.

I had gone down to the newsroom to consult with The State's main Web juju man, Dave Roberts, about this site. Being informed that Dave was out, I was making my way back through the newsroom when I noticed a knot of elementary schoolers crowded around a reporter's desk. A tour. I had already passed when I heard my name. Turning back, I was informed that these children were regular readers of my work and would like to talk to me. I looked around, and estimated (accurately, as it turned out) that these were second-graders. Fans of mine? Didn't seem likely, but I was game.

The teacher standing next to me looked down at one little girl sitting cross-legged at his feet, and urged her to ask me the question she had just been asking. After a brief look of "Why did you call on me" exasperation, she said (and all quotes herein are approximations; I had no notebook with me): "How come sometimes in the paper there's this big story about a dog show, with pictures and lots of words, and on the same day something tragic and important happens, but all there is about it is a paragraph?"

Well, it was about all I could do not to bend down and hug her. I am so weary of hearing how in order to survive, newspapers have to lure young readers by dumbing-down their content, stressing entertainment and frivolous features and such at the expense of "boring" hard news.

I just knew there were kids out there like these, and here they were. I was ready to talk to these kids all day. I launched into an explanation about how the flow of news works, explaining that you might have planned to send a reporter and photographer to the dog show for days or even weeks, and on that particular day you had the space set aside for the dog show, and you executed your plan. But then, the "tragic" news develops maybe an hour before you go to press, and the sources are busy and hard to reach, and all you can get of it is a paragraph of information, so you go with that -- and if the story is big enough, you follow through the next day. I likened it to having a week for a homework assignment, so you really do that up right, but when the teacher gives you another task to do five minutes before the dismissal bell, you do what you can.

Then Mr. O'Keefe asks why something like a big coal mine disaster would only get short shrift in the paper, as opposed to ongoing coverage of the Michael Jackson trial. After making it clear that I've been out of the business of making such judgments for 11 years (since I moved to editorial), so I can't really speak to recent developments, I tried to answer based on my 20 years in newsrooms before that. I explained the Journalism 101 elements of news play -- that you decide based on the factors of interest, importance, proximity and immediacy (I tried to explain those terms in words the kids would understand, but I have a feeling it was unnecessary), and every story has those elements in different proportions. While noting that you won't catch me following the Michael Jackson trial, plenty of other people have a high interest in it. Same with dog shows; I pointed out that lots of folks call newspapers to say, "Why do you splash all that 'negative news' over the front page, when you could be covering my nice dog show?" Different strokes for different folks.

A coal-mine disaster is important -- in West Virginia. In South Carolina, we don't have a lot of coal miners. Nor are South Carolinians in a position to DO much about a coal mine disaster. I contrasted this with the recent boiler explosion that killed a man just down the street from this office. That had proximity, immediacy andinterest, and serious importance for South Carolina, since it was the only state in the union that doesn't to safety inspections of boilers. So we played that story for all it was worth.

Yadda, yadda.

Anyway, as I'm going on, this little towheaded guy has his hand up and waving around, to the point that Mr. O'Keefe signals him to give it a rest, and he gives up. When Mr. O'Keefe says, "Well, Mr. Warthen is busy, and we've kept him long enough," I say, "No wait. This young man has a question. What is it, buddy?"

So he says, "What inspired you (those three words are verbatim, as you don't forget it when a second-grader starts a question with "What inspired you...") to write that letter to the editor (meaning a column) about that man where you said he was 'not a gentleman -- translation: he's a jerk?"

Well, the grownups all laughed, and someone asked if I was glad I had taken one more question. But I loved it, and just answered him straight: "I was inspired to write that by the fact that the man in question -- Rep. Altman -- IS a jerk."

"You see," I said, addressing all the boys and girls, "lots of other people had written lots of things about Mr. Altman and what he had said and done, but nobody had pointed out the rather obvious fact that basically, he's a big, fat jerk. So I thought I should do that."

These kids were great. They're students at the Center for Inquiry, Richland District 2's magnet school. I told them they were all going to be great newspaper readers one day, and then corrected myself: "You already ARE wonderful newspaper readers."

Normally, I don't connect this well with kids this age who are not my own. I find it awkward trying to get on their level. These little Einsteins saved me the trouble by getting down on MY level. It made my day. The only thing lacking was that I wish it had all been on videotape, so I could show it to my good friend Mike Albo, our circulation director. It would have been killer evidence for my side in our ongoing debate about how newspapers should go about appealing to readers, particularly young ones. Sure, these kids were exceptional. But they gave me hope.

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Chris Hass said...

What a great experience. It certainly inspires me to do more with the news. Like with so many things we's not the stories themselves that are critical but the conversations we build around them. I'm really glad you reposted this one!

Emily Whitecotton said...

I'm with Chris, here. Thanks for the repost, and I want to do more with the news. Its timeliness and relevance come for free. It kills me when I think about what I don't do with it.

I love it when people appreciate each other, especially when the outside world of adults gets to see our kids through the lens we use. When Brad talked about his normal experiences with kids and then his experience with your Einsteins, it made me happy. There are so many things that I think adults miss about kids when they choose to see kids as tiny, deficient adults who needs more information, ideas, maturity, whatev... to be seen as worthy of respect. You allowed Brad to see how brilliantly kids can shine when we adults can support them and get out of the way. Also, the fact that he was willing to let them give him hope and maybe even teach him something.

You share this kind of encouragement and appreciation often, but I hope you know that you deserve it, too: Your kids (and the adults who get to really see them for who they are) are lucky that you're around. Thank you.