I went to high school in Alaska (fun fact: I graduated the same year as Sarah Palin, whose high school was about a half-hour away). And no, it wasn’t a one-room building lit by seal oil in the bare, frozen tundra; it was a modern, well-funded, well-equipped school of about 1,600.
But as I often tell the many young journalists I speak to each year, about the only thing I can remember about what was called the student “newspaper” at my high school — in reality, just a bunch of stapled 8 ½ x 11” pages — was that it once published my girlfriend’s drawings (along with a really cute photo of her). Other hot topics included a photo collage of students’ cars, a story about the French Club fashion show, a quiz about college mascots, essays/poems about being the best you could be, an interview with the school receptionist about, well, being a school receptionist — and maybe some 3- or 4-week-old sports scores.
In other words, it could hardly have been more irrelevant to my life and that of my classmates. And that’s how we treated it.
At the time, I didn’t know what I was missing. I do now.
Writing has always been one of my strengths. And watching and trying to make some sense of the world has always been important. But I didn’t realize in high school that those two ingredients, if properly stirred — and eventually seasoned with all that stuff you learn in Reporting 101 — can make journalism.
And while my affinity for journalism seems obvious now, as a graduating high school senior, journalism — as a possible profession — was not even on my radar.
But I was lucky. At college, after being thoroughly disenchanted by my first semester as a business major and switching schools, I discovered student journalism and never looked back. With encouragement and lots of war stories from my j-mentor, the late Professor Olszyk, I sampled most of the student journalism Marquette University offered: print, broadcast, news and entertainment. I loved (and seemed to have a pretty good knack for) it all. Journalism — and particularly my student media experience — changed my life forever.
I might have arrived to journalism late. But thankfully I arrived — unlike anyone else in my high school graduating class.
Still, while nurturing future journalists — and instilling in others a respect for the press’ role — is essential to a healthy democracy, giving students the opportunity to work in a strong high school student media program is about much more than providing career guidance.
For nearly two decades, I have had the privilege to work with some of the most amazing students our educational system has produced. Don’t just take my word for it. Studies show that scholastic journalism attracts — and helps create — the best and the brightest. But neither I nor anyone who regularly works with high school journalists needed an official study. We know it, because we see it. Many of you reading this know what I mean when I describe the excitement and energy that exists in a healthy student newsroom.
“Education,” the poet William Butler Yeats said, “is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
And when all cylinders are clicking, I challenge any administrator to show me a program where the fire of education burns brighter. Good scholastic media is full of student-initiated, carefully researched, balanced, timely, creative, informative, visually attractive, well-written work. In short, student journalism is where critical thinking and clear expression — the expressed goals of education — come together. Given the opportunity, good student journalism will make a believer out of any educator who pays more than lip-service to his or her title.
But good scholastic journalism — like any successful program — requires a commitment. When a j-program is allowed to flourish, when it is supported, when necessary resources are made available, when top journalism students are recognized and praised for their efforts instead of being hauled down to the office and berated for a column that dared question the school’s new dress code, when a principal has scouted for a qualified and committed high school journalism adviser with close to the same energy used to recruit the football coach and then lets that professional adviser do his or her job — when that happens, the results are transformative.
I didn’t experience it. But, boy, have I have seen it.
Mike Hiestand is the SPLC’s consulting attorney. We’ll have more #SJW11 posts from the SPLC team every day this week. Please share your stories with us via Facebook and Twitter (@SPLC_org).