Thursday, March 15, 2007
There are a few times when the media pulls back the veil and gets involved in the community it covers. Sometimes, media organizations will sponsor a charity event or fundraiser. Other times, they'll form a team of employees to help with Habitat for Humanity or with City Year. This week, my company partnered with a local charter school for Reading Week.
For the last few days, reporters, photographers, managers and editors have pulled off the shades of cynicism we use in our job and donned, instead, a pair of reading glasses.
And I had the distinction of being the last reader of the week.
I walked into the Paul Cuffee Charter School and, after signing in, was escorted to the 2nd grade classroom where I'd be reading. No sooner had I walked into the room that the cutest little girl said from across the room:
"Do you know what my bus monitor calls me?"
"Aleia," she said, beaming with pride that her name, rhymed with mine.
I smiled and put my coat and purse down on the desk. I slipped the name tag I'd been given around my neck and smoothed my khaki skirt.
In addition to writing/broadcasting/producing, as journalists, we serve as the face of the organization to the community. People complain to you about their paper carrier, or lament the elimination of TV guide in the newspaper. They want you to serve as the clearing house for all information - calling you to relay phone numbers, lotter numbers and addresses to them. We're like a glorified 411 in many ways. We also get the brunt of reader wrath when the paper writes something the community doesn't like whether it be an article, an editorial or even an add.
Do you know how many times I've been berated for the amount my paper charges for an obituary? I've lost count.
People transfer all of their feelings about the paper to us, the physical manifestation of their daily news. The love, hate, disdain and agner they feel toward our employer is often taken out on us. It's weird. I'm used to rejection from my sources. I can even handle it if they yell at me. But standing in that classroom was different than anything I've encoutered before. Something told me that being rejected by a group of 7-year-olds would feel like the ultimate failure. I had to knock it out of the park. The teacher, Ms. Rich, roused me from my thoughts and directed me to sit in a large wooden rocking chair.
It was do or die time.
I smiled widely at the kids and picked up the book I was to read. Cajun Through and Through was a small book about two Louisiana brothers and their city cousin who comes down to visit for the summer. I asked the kids a few questions to break the tension. To my surprise they were eager to talk and seemed to like me already.
I cracked open the book and began to read. I have to admit, I got tripped up by some of the slang and dialect -- simply because I wasn't expecting to see it in a children's book, but I'm proud to say I handled that story, thanks to my southern roots. I peppered my reading with a few questions about the story and comments on the plot line. Once I closed the book, the barrage of questions - and random statements - began.
I like how you changed your voice when you read. "Thanks," I said.
When is your birthday? "October."
My birthday is today. I'm 8. "Happy Birthday!"
How old are you? "23. Is that old to you guys?"
No, my mom is 27. My mom is 29. My mom is 51.
I like your hair. "Thanks."
Do you have any kids? "No," I said with a chuckle.
Do you have any siblings? "Yes, I have a lot of siblings."
How old are the kids in the book? "I don't know, the author didn't say."
You're pretty. "Well, thank you."
Then the teacher, Ms. Rich, huddled the kids around the rocking chair I was sitting in and snapped a few pictures.
Afterwards, some of the kids stayed near the chair, seemingly fascinated with me. One little girl, who'd expressed interest in my hair earlier, patted my afro. Another, seemingly entranced by my stockinged legs, gently grazed my calf. As I prepared to leave, a handful of the kids ran up to me and gave me hugs.
All this for reading a story? I should do this more often.
I couldn't wipe the silly grin from my face for an hour after I left.
Those kids reminded me that we cover real people. Not just politicians, not just issues. But people. Our job is more than just deadlines, inch counts and picas. Our job is to be the voice of the community and to document their joy, pain, ourtage and struggle. I walked away from that school yearning to bring the same enthusiasm, zeal and zest to my job that those kids had exhibited after my reading.
So if you see me leaving the newsroom with a smile that I can't wipe off, you'll know why.