I close my eyes and all of it comes back to me. Richard Nixon had just won the U.S. Presidency, for a second term. The family gathered – either later that fall of 1972, or the following summer – from Toronto, from Maryland, New Jersey and Florida. Then, usually after the first meal together, dessert was finished, a few drinks consumed, and it was time to talk. It wouldn’t take long before current events, politics and Nixon became the focus. Within minutes there was a storm brewing.
“How could he possibly get re-elected?” my father would say.
“He’s good for business,” a couple of my American relatives would say. “He’s gonna end the war in Vietnam.”
“He’s a crook!” my father would say, looking for a verbal fight.
It happened over the weekend. She called me over to her house. As a neighbour of some 25 years, of course, I said I’d help. When I entered her kitchen, I realized she was upset. More than that she was worried. She handed me a letter she’d received from a utility and asked me to explain to her what it meant. I looked at the content of the letter as she spoke to me. She seemed to be more afraid than inquisitive.
“What does this mean?” she repeated.
As many of you know, I live next door to a most extraordinary person. At 91, Rodine Egan is not as spry as she once was, but at no time have I ever sensed that anything could frighten her.
It came out of the blue. I hadn’t really expected to hear from this former student ever again. But there she was, contacting me by email several years later. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. The college year is just about done (as are we the instructors at the college done in more ways than one). But her words made all the tough teaching moments of the year evaporate in an instant.
“I’m not sure if this will reach you,” she said. “I just wanted to say thank you for not giving up on me and giving me more determination than I could have imagined.”
Janet was one of those college students for whom nothing ever came easily. Whenever my colleagues at Centennial College and I asked Janet and some of her classmates to come up with story ideas, it often proved as difficult as teaching them to swim in deep water. Then, there was the problem of finding sources for her stories; nobody was ever available and none of the leads we offered seemed to yield the information she needed. In addition, there was always plenty of adolescent angst swirling around her as she battled to balance schoolwork with life.
And deadlines always loomed large for her; there was more than one occasion when just one more extension for delivery of the news story was one concession I wasn’t prepared to give and she wasn’t prepared to lose. As her editor, I found that Janet required attention and coaching nearly 24/7. But she eventually passed the course. She went on to enroll in yet another course in corporate communications and public relations and she eventually landed a permanent job in the public service sector.
That’s not to say that teaching young people is ever totally rosy. This past winter semester proved a trial for a lot of my fellow journalism instructors and their students. Many more students than I care to tabulate had psychological difficulties, including such illnesses as attention deficit, depression and even post-traumatic stress. A number of our students had to cope with oppressive home situations – perpetrated by a dominant parent, a troubled sibling or sometimes even an out-of-control roommate.
More and more these days, the problems of the home end up in the classroom and those of us who’ve emigrated from being journalists to teaching journalism are not always up-to-date on the latest effective techniques for dealing with student psychoses or trauma.
I guess my least favourite moment involved an undergraduate student (not Janet), studying both university level academics and journalism at the same time. She was struggling with a news story about a long-standing strike in Toronto. I had suggested to her, in order to deliver the perspectives of both management and labour in her story, that she ought to go to a corporate representative for the management view and then to walk the picket line to listen to average employees explain their side of the story.
“That seems like an awful lot of work,” she said.
“Journalism is often like that,” I said. “You wear out a lot of shoe leather trying to get close to the subjects of your story.”
“But I’m just here for the marks,” she said. “I don’t want to be a journalist. I want to go on to law school.”
I didn’t quite know how to answer that one. But if she was paying attention, the young woman must have sensed my frustration at trying to steer her in the right direction only to learn she was only studying journalism like a minor subject and really just wanted the quickest way out.
In truth, we teachers often complain among ourselves. But what helps those (who’ve been teaching many more years than I) come back to the front of the lecture hall or the classroom semester after semester, is the hope that among the freshmen in the class will be gems in the rough.
As some of you know, I’m a stickler for the proper use of language. Just ask my daughters or my writing students. Some call me a “CP Style fanatic.” All journalism in Canada begins with the “Canadian Press Stylebook” for proper spellings, grammatical forms, rules of punctuation, structure for quoting sources, methods of attributing interviewees and when to use abbreviations and when not. The smaller version of the 500-page CP Stylebook is a companion volume called “CP Caps and Spelling” for thumbnail references to all the correct English usage in Canadian journalism. For some, including my former student Janet, coping with the rigid rules of language was never easy. But as she concluded her email to me last week she paid me the ultimate compliment.
“I am now the content manager for (a large Canadian charity,)” she said. “Sitting on my desk … are my Stylebook and Caps and Spelling. I use (them) every day.”
Sometimes, it’s the small victories that mean the most.
Here we go again. The past few days all I’ve been hearing is doom and gloom about the economy. Everywhere I look and listen – in the papers and on radio and TV mostly – I see and hear people running around shouting the modern equivalent of Chicken Little’s “The sky is falling. The sky is falling!” Only the 2011 version is: