#SJW11: This is what responsibility looks like

My camera and I were nearly alone on the shoulder of Retreat-Kanaskat Road.

A handful of passing cars barely slowed as I stood there surveying the scene. The ice on this curve was gone now, along with the mangled wreckage and whoever had found it. In its place was a collection of memories – messages from friends who did their best to find the words. Someone had been given the somber duty of making a wooden cross that now bore the driver’s name: Matthew.

I was covering the story for a local newspaper back then. It wouldn’t be the last death I would write about during my tour there. I felt confident this one would make the front page – certainly the first section. Our community was small and expected as much.

Briefly I wondered how best to write this up. Though I could have gotten away with a feature lede, I figured it best to stick with the hard news approach. I wondered how my readers would respond. Some would think it disrespectful even to mention this — we should write about happier things, they’d say. But people needed to know.

My shots were decent. If they wanted anything better, well, they’d just have to send out someone from Photo. (We weren’t a “converged” shop in those days.) Satisfied, I walked back over to my aging reporter’s-grade automobile and headed for the office.

The newsroom was better known as Classroom 1005. And the crash victim was better known as Matt – a kid who had ridden the bus with me for as long as I could remember. The grieving friends were the other people in 3rd period. The inconsolable parents were the folks who lived down the street.

High school journalism is about more than the Homecoming Parade. It’s about the tough, gritty, messy and too-often tragic reality that is teenage life. It’s about writing something that a family will clip out and save forever. It’s about that rare opportunity to take something that matters, invest yourself in it, slip and fall and laugh and cry along the way… and come away a better person.

It was an opportunity that made me who I am today. It taught me a great deal about journalism — about picas and cutlines — but the most important lessons were the I ones I learned about myself.

We hear a lot about responsibility these days – how young people don’t take enough of it, and how our schools and society must demand more of it. Much of what I know about responsibility I learned in the journalism room at Enumclaw High School. I learned about it when the angry teachers came calling. I learned about it on late production nights when the deadline loomed.

And I learned about it on the side of a rural county road with a camera and a notepad when I was 17.

Brian Schraum is the SPLC’s publications fellow. 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).