Friday, November 11, 2011

Challenge 10: Hero

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#31. Tell one story about yourself that would best provide us, either directly or indirectly, with an insight into the kind of person you are. For example, the story can simply relate a personal experience, or a humorous anecdote; it can tell about an especially significant academic encounter or about an unusual test of character. The possibilities are unlimited (well, almost so). You choose. Just relax and write it. (Princeton)

For one academic year when I was a college student, I wrote a daily opinion column for my school newspaper. My opinions weren't always well-informed or rational, my writing often bordered on incompetent, my humor was only sometimes on the mark. Still, I count this as a major achievement. I was a full-time student, was the program director at the campus radio station, was the editor of the newspaper's weekly entertainment supplement, and I still managed to find the time to write 700-800 words a day on topics of my choice -- politics, pop culture, local news. (And in case you're wondering, yes, I did have a girlfriend, so no "loser" jokes please.)

A few experiences relating to my column stand out from that year. One of my happiest was receiving a letter in the mail (an actual letter, not an email!) from one of the top feature writers in Chicago, who wrote, in part, "You're pretty weird, but I always read your column." (Those were his exact words; I'll never forget.) One of my most humbling was when a group of advertisers demanded that I be fired because I had written something sarcastic about their town. (This was a paid job, and our newspaper earned most of its revenue -- my salary -- from ad sales, so this was a real threat, but luckily the editor in chief and staff adviser were calm about the whole thing and reminded the advertisers that my piece was just an opinion and this was, after all, America.)

The incident that stands out the most, however, had little to do with my actual role as daily columnist and budding humorist. It was a time when I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Almost all the editors were out of town for three or four days to attend a writing conference. For some reason I wasn't able to go, so I stayed behind to supervise the entire news staff in creating the Thursday and Friday editions. Wednesday evening went fine, and the Thursday paper looked good. (I should mention that the other editors had done most of the work before leaving on Wednesday, so I just had to stick around to make sure everything went OK before the paper was sent to the printer at midnight.) On Thursday morning, however, I received a phone call that made me think, momentarily, that I was in a movie (although I wasn't sure if it was a comedy and someone was making fun of me or if it was a tense, political drama).

I was in the office at 9 a.m., blowing off yet another class because of this darned job. The phone in the editor's office rang, and I thought, "Hmm, I'm in charge today, I guess I should get that."

On the other line was a man, whispering something about plans to fire the university president. I had no idea what any of the information meant, so I asked him to slow down, to explain.

"The Board of Regents is planning to meet this weekend in secret," he said, "and they're planning to fire him."

"Is this allowed?"

"No, what are you stupid? Of course this isn't allowed."

"Then how can they get away with it?"

"Because no one knows about it!"

"So ...?"

"So you need to write about it! This is the newspaper, isn't it?"

I asked him for his name; he refused to give it. I asked him for some more details; he gave me names of people I might call. Then -- like in any movie where someone's on the phone and someone else walks in the room -- he hung up.

Was this a joke? Was someone just messing with me? I wasn't sure. The irony in this situation was that it was I who had received the information. I was known on campus as a great hater of the school president. Without ever really having a reason (other than not having anything else to write about), I often made fun of the man and even once suggested that he be fired. But ... if the anonymous source had been correct, the president was now going to be fired in an illegal power move by the Board.

Ultimately, I didn't know what to do, or if this was a hoax or not, so I called up the editors, interrupting their conference. We worked for the rest of the day on the story, and I designed an amazing page one for the next day. The article caused an uproar, the president's job was saved, and I was a hero. No, actually, the first two things happened, but I never received any credit for any of it. In fact, the president never even called to say thanks, and I soon went back to writing sarcastic opinion pieces about him.

But something did change that weekend: I went from a snot-nosed young writer to a proper journalist. Despite my personal opinions and biases, I was able to work on a story that pursued the truth of an unfair situation. This, I realized, is what journalists do day in and day out. This, I thought, was the job for me.

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