Each day during Scholastic Journalism Week, the staff of the Student Press Law Center is going back to school — blogging about the impact student media had on their own embryonic lives. This was my dumb idea, so I’ll start.
Let’s deal with this up front. When you go to the dentist, you want two things — you want it not to hurt, and you want it over fast. That was high school. The cinematic portrayals that romanticize the high school experience are as realistic to me as “Mothra.” I honestly would not attend a reunion if it were going on in my living room.
High school is the bend in the racetrack where the sprinters pull away from the pack. Up to about middle school, the dough hasn’t set yet, and everyone is at least potentially a looker. By high school, we know. The recognition dawns in the Truly Beautiful that nice things will be handed to them, and that the ceiling of possibilities is incalculably higher for them. Entire career paths — newscasting, pharmaceutical sales, marrying Larry King — will be open to them and only them.
There are the kids who hit high school and suddenly begin sprouting muscles and hair all over, so that by 15 they look like little miniature adults, and they’re caged together — predator and prey — with the kid from the “before” picture in the ad for Centerville Orthodontic & Dermatological Emergency Clinic. The results are predictable.
True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country. –-Kurt Vonnegut
I can remember exactly eight good days of high school: The days the truck dropped off the twine-wrapped newspaper bundles that we hungrily tore into like starving refugees on a food parachute.
If politics is show business for ugly people, then journalism is politics for shy people who haven’t quite grown into their looks. “Look at me,” it is saying. “Notice me. I’m here, and I matter.” When you see your name on that printed page, knowing that other kids in the school made the decision to put it there, you are electrified head-to-toe. That Homecoming crown you’ll never touch has been placed on your head. Validation.
My favorite teacher in high school wasn’t a teacher at all, but a teaching assistant, Mr. Feldman, who worked with the newspaper kids, slipping us all kinds of subversive ideas with the security of a short-timer. I remember the day Mr. Feldman brought in his old Georgetown yearbook, and sneaked us a look at the photos — a guy puffing a joint, a seemingly nude couple intertwined under a tousled sheet — that had landed the editors in Father Healy’s penance box. We could only afford basic cable in my house, so this was by far the smuttiest thing I’d seen up to that point. It was hypnotic.
I understand now, as I couldn’t fully then, why journalism is terrifying to so many in authority. Because it’s empowering. Bad high schools are governed by intimidation, and for administrators who secretly doubt their competence (or worse, who know they’ve done something wrong), an empowered kid is a problem kid. Those are the kinds of “problems” our schools need more of. In the uncomplicated clarity of youth, they are powerful. And they are Truly Beautiful.