That's by Katherine Graham, long-time publisher of the Washington Post.
I am no Graham, of course, but I have for two years now been the advisor of FGS's online student newspaper. Let's just admit that most of the journalism my high school journalists create is not especially exciting, but it has gotten better this year, and we are going in a good direction.
The high point of this year was definitely an editorial written this spring by a sophomore, pushing the school community to talk more frankly about US race relations and tensions, especially in light of the Baltimore protests. I worked with the student through multiple revisions, and the end result was well-written and thoughtful. I was so proud!
And then I was even more excited when a student read that editorial and responded with a letter to the editor. Oh my gosh, a student letter to the editor -- when has that ever happened in recent years? And to have students having such thoughtful discussions about race in the "pages" of our paper -- well, that was just amazing. Plus, the entire staff (and when I say "entire," I mean five kids) is convinced that those opinion pieces helped light a fire under the assembly about racism that the school had a couple of weeks later ... and I think they're right! I finally started feeling good about the paper, which I'd been disappointed for the entire first year I advised it. Yay -- everything was humming!
... except it turns out that the student opinion pieces totally pissed off our multicultural coordinator. I invited her to write a letter to the editor, and she said she was already working on it. Turns out that the letter was signed not just by her but also by the head of school! It was actually a fine letter, with just a trace of defensiveness. So, happy ending, right?
Well, the multicultural coordinator is still mad, and since she's part of the FGS clique of cooler-than-you women (really the only exclusionary "in group" among the faculty and administrators), I've been getting a wee bit of a cold shoulder from a few other folks in that clique. Mostly, my response is "seriously? can we be grown-ups? and why isn't the multicultural coordinator jumping for joy that students are actually talking thoughtfully about race?"
My other response was "why isn't it summer yet?"
I had thought that I'd just slip on by for the last couple of weeks, and then everyone would have a chance to cool down and gain perspective over the summer. But then one of my seniors decided to write a hard-hitting opinion piece about how international students are treated by the school. This is a really important topic, and she's an incredibly smart and thoughtful student, but her first version of this editorial, back in February, was so pissy and bitter that I told her we couldn't publish it until she did some serious revision, which I was happy to work with her on. She just dropped it, but then this weekend she revised it. It's much better, but still pretty pissy, and she's making the mistake of thinking she can speak for all international students rather than speaking to her own specific experience. She also needs to decide what the one specific thing is that she wants to accomplish with this editorial. All of which I told her.
The problem is that she also sent the editorial to her advisor, who is an administrator and part of the cool clique. Said advisor shared the editorial with the division head this morning, and suddenly I had an email asking if I could meet this very afternoon.
Fortunately, the division head is a truly fabulous person, hands down my favorite administrator ever, and we actually had a very good, very productive conversation. But it was a 45-minute conversation! The end result is that:
- I have reassured her that my ground rule for all student publications and especially editorials is "no pissiness," that articles have to be constructive, responsible, and clearly aiming to make the school a better place even if they're making criticisms. And she agreed that what we'd published had been up to that level.
- We also agreed that the role of journalism is to hold up a mirror to society, to call the school on things it isn't doing well, and to be a forum for thoughtful conversation. And that the paper was definitely doing this work and doing it well with the student editorial.
- I agreed that it would be a good idea to give a heads up to certain folks in the community so that they'd know what was about to appear in the paper, if it affects their daily job. We were very clear that this is in no way about getting permission to run an article, just a collegial kindness. I'm happy to do these heads-up, but I did tell the division head that it honestly hadn't even occurred to me to say something to the multicultural coordinator because the particular context that gave rise to the first student editorial is in no way part of the coordinator's job. So why would I have dropped her a note? I'm a little worried that giving a heads up to one person is going to turn into doing far more checking-in than I'd like, that being the FGS way, but as long as no one is trying to curtail the students' work, it's fine. (No one but me, of course! I'm all about not letting students publish work that is not up to snuff.)
- Fortunately, we also agreed that the newspaper has been fabulous this year! The division head said the paper had been "amazing," which was definitely the bright spot in the converrsation.
Honestly, it was a good conversation, but it was also rather stressful, especially after teaching five classes almost in a row. I came home quite worn out. D. made me a grilled cheese sandwich (my classic comfort food) that I ate while lying on the couch and watching a British murder mystery on TV. I gave myself permission to not do any work tonight, and I'm about to go to bed at 8:00 and read a book.
Here's the lovely thing: The sophomore who wrote that first editorial that started all of this? She's going to be the newspaper editor next year! So I am hoping that we'll have more strongly voiced and responsible articles next year. And we will undoubtedly ruffle more feathers, because that's what good journalists do. I just need to keep getting better at not getting my own feathers all ruffled!