The Right Words

journalism

Because it's January, I have once again succumbed to the pressure to purge and get organized—though neither of those activities can be listed as a strength of mine.

And because going through the more mundane objects like outgrown clothes and unused kitchen gadgets does nothing to help me stay motivated, I always end up breaking ALL the KonMari rules and going straight for the bins of sentimental stuff.

Letters, cards, loose photographs. All of the treasures that remind me of days past. I devour them and get lost in the nostalgia of remembering myself the way I used to be.

Last week, I made some real progress and uncovered a long-neglected box of some of my school papers and projects. I did a lot of school, I wrote a lot of papers. It was fascinating to look inside and find the pages I must have decided were worth keeping. There are projects from grade school, book reports from high school, research papers from my undergraduate years, as well as the very last academic paper I wrote (for a course in Investigative Journalism). And the theme that ties all of them together is found in the written comments, made by the reader and grader of those papers. 

You have a gift for words.
You are a wonderful storyteller.
Louise, I don't know what your career plans are, but I really hope you find yourself working in print journalism. 

What are we supposed to feel when we read words like these about ourselves? I was almost blushing as I let the pleasure of seeing those comments written about my work wash over me. I felt like I should look away embarrassed. I probably knew I'd feel that way when I came upon them again; that's why I kept them. 

I don't know how much my teachers and professors thought about the weight of those words. Surely, they wrote many over the years and had little time to dwell on their impact. But their weight has indeed stayed with me. 

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Two months ago, I was invited to be a guest speaker in my cousin's grade five classroom. She is a dedicated and awe-inspiring teacher who has been teaching in an inner-city school for over two decades. She was one of my first teachers (running a mock school in her parents' basement for all her younger cousins every summer) and makes such a difference in the lives of the many children who rely on her comments to lift them up. 

She wanted me to come in and talk to her class about what it was like to study journalism and pursue work in the field. She hoped my visit would open the students' eyes to less mainstream career ideas. And like most teachers, she never shies away from an opportunity to emphasize the importance of communication.

I was terrified, to be honest. 

I'm the parent of a grade four and grade six kid. I know it's a tough crowd. I worried about holding the attention of a room full of kids whose families likely consider a newspaper or magazine subscription a luxury beyond their means. I brought print clippings and books to which I've contributed anyway. And I structured my lesson plan around my more recent publications on the Internet, hoping it would be something they could relate to.

I was on the right track. Before I had a chance to launch into my talk, some of the students offered up my social media statistics for the rest of the class. And though I consider myself a very small fish in a very big ocean, my numbers were deemed high enough to lend me some street cred.

But it was the moment I asked them to raise their hands if they were storytellers that our song and dance really began. I watched them look at one another and at their teacher, unsure of what I meant. I waited only a moment before pointing at each of them and saying, "You and you and you and you, too." 

And I watched their faces light up with understanding. 

They raised their hands enthusiastically, videotaped me, and asked really savvy questions. They all watched me carefully and listened well. The only groan came when I told them I was leaving them with a story assignment. 

The envelope filled with those stories arrived over the holiday break, and I've been regarding it like an unopened Christmas gift since. I know it's more than a completed assignment for some of the kids. I wondered how many of them imagined themselves a storyteller while working on it, and I knew I might see something special in those ordinary stories. 

I opened the envelope today and began the work of reading their words and writing my comments. What do I want them to feel when they read my comments about their words? I hope I can help them blush with pride, too. And whether or not they keep this story in a box for safekeeping, I would be glad if the weight of my words stays with them for a long time to come.