I knew I was in trouble when I saw the subject line: "Reminder for Career Expo at Richardson High School." I had committed to appearing to represent journalism as a profession to thousands of impressionable kids.
My reaction was immediate and vulgar and aimed at Dallas Observer staff writer Eric Nicholson. This was his fault — he agreed to the event at his alma mater and then squirreled off on a vacation. He sent an email to the staff asking for a volunteer, and like a sucker I jumped in. It seemed like the kind of grenade-smothering thing an editor in chief should do, since the staff should be too busy writing, reporting and thrashing freelancers to be inspirational.
Weeks passed and the expo crept up on me. Which is to say, I forgot all about it. Until the email appeared.
Reading it scared me even more. "Please bring items to hand out to students that explain your profession and what it takes to become one," it said. "For your table, you will be provided a poster with your name, your job title, and the name of the company you are with; other than that, you will need to bring items to decorate your table, or have 'attention-grabbers.'"
Now, a normal newspaper could just bring a bunch of copies to hand out. But this week's Observer cover story details "how to get drunk in public." I figured I'd be escorted from the school upon arrival.
I'd have to be my own attention grabber. And so what, I reasoned. The natural born journalists wouldn't be distracted by baubles. I nabbed a plastic Observer banner and an empty notebook and went to school.
As soon as I walked into the high school library, I felt ill at ease with the setup of the dozen other tables. The Richardson Police Department offered up an armed woman in uniform and devices with blinking lights. The pharmacist, bottles and baubles. The architect had gorgeous photos of buildings and samples of building materials. And the beauticians next to me not only had props for selfies and an arsenal of makeup, they were packing mini cupcakes. Mini ... freaking ... cupcakes.
Clearly, I was outclassed. I anticipated an afternoon of awkward rejection (hey, high school!). My mood soured when I glanced green signup sheets by the library door — I figured these were to record which students chose which professions. This public humiliation would come with stats, like a Cowboys game.
I fetched some construction paper and a magic marker. They had props, but I wanted to catch the eye of the witty and the curious. So I scrawled a quick note: "Free Advise for Aspiring Journalists." Yes, with the spelling error. Not satisfied, I added a second sheet of paper: "Tips Accepted."
Then came the kids. The student body at Richardson is 2,600. They came in waves, three lunch periods worth of them. "This is like the Somme," I said to the architect. He caught the WWI battle reference, and ducked behind his well-adorned desk, head peeking out from the edge as if peering across no man's land for the next human wave attack.
The students cruised the tables, eyes scouring for something to be interested in. Most passed me by; large flocks gathered by the beauticians for selfies and cupcakes. All I had was a banner of a newspaper they never heard of and a sign with the identifying label "Journalist."
But something interesting happened. Kids started coming over. Some of them had questions of an almost bovine stupidity — "So, um, what does a journalist do anyway?" But most displayed a curiosity and creative impulse that surprised me.
OK, so I don't have kids, and I don't associate with them. To me, teens are the dumb ones in Internet videos, the wretches who cut me off in traffic, the dopes who support worthless musicians. In other words, I'm old and don't trust the next generation.
I still don't. But the day has taught me to hold out some hope. Discounting the dumb ones, the kids who came by my humble table could be separated into two groups: awkward, introspective writers and ambitious broadcast types. I tried to tell them that multimedia skills are the future, and that thanks to the Internet platform, journalists are expected to wear several hats. Job security, I said, comes with diversifying your skills. The message fell flat — they all want to be virtuosos, and my pragmatic nonsense rolled off of them.
But these budding journalists had an open attitude to media; somehow I expected these kids to be savvy, crusty veterans of the Information Age. But they wanted to transition from consumers of media to the purveyors. It's a smart instinct, and I had to respect it despite the naïveté that often came with it.
The broadcast types seemed to come from the RISD magnet school. One had a video she cut at a city homeless shelter, and she was so sharp I fell into EIC mode. I told her if she could cut it to 3 minutes we'd consider buying it to publish. "My teacher wanted it at 10 minutes," she said conspiratorially. "That's the only reason it's so long." Her eyes danced in her head with the prospect of the video finding a home, and I hope she sends an edit soon.
The writers were more familiar, since I'm a print guy. I always asked them if they wrote, and how often. Many are compulsive scribes, others get hung up on the discipline. One of them said he stopped writing because he was no good at grammar. I had to laugh. "You can learn grammar, like any skill," I said. "The instinct to process your thoughts and share them is hard to teach."
He seemed a little skeptical until I pointed out my sign, now corrected. "I'm not really good with grammar either," I said. "Keep writing. We'll keep copy editors in business."
One more thing about these young writers reminded me of something I had forgotten — how frustrating it is for a teen writer. "I have all these thoughts," one kid told me. "But I can't write them all, and when I do it comes out wrong."
"Uh huh," I said. "That makes you a writer."
Teens just don't have the discipline or even the time to be writers, but for many the impulse is there. The world is confusing to a teen, and writing seems like a way to find order in the chaos. So when they can't — just like I couldn't, until daily newspaper work focused me in college — it can be uncomfortable. But giving up on the craft because of this is a dreadful mistake, and I told him so.
I told them to always carry a notebook and develop their descriptive writing skills. "Describe a tree, a dog, something on the bus or in the halls," I said, getting into the whole mentorship thing. "You'll build up your brain like a muscle, and you'll instinctively start collecting observations. And all those little details will help you be a better writer and show people what's happening in your stories, instead of telling them."
That's pretty deep, at least I think so, but I swear these kids followed along. One heard the advice and reached into his pocket. "You earned this, thanks, " he said, and dropped a crumpled dollar on the table and walked away.
The Expo ended like it began — abruptly. I thought I performed well and was eager to find out how many kids chose to be a journalist. To my chagrin, the green sheets were sign-ups, not some sort of reality TV-style competition. I had capered and pandered for nothing, but I found it didn't matter. It made me happy to yak with them, and try to steer them into a life that may not make them rich or even stable, but offers other kinds of rewards. And they seemed up for it.
Of course, I caught social media shit for the spelling error since I tweeted an uncorrected photo at the
I waited for the tide of embarrassment to wash over me, familiar depression that comes with being scrutinized. But it didn't. These kids somehow made me happy to be a journalist, an unexpected benefit for the afternoon.
One of these smart punks will one day gun for my job, my page space or my sources. I hope they don't get too good too fast.
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