Monday, April 02, 2012

A bright spark

I thought I was done.

It was January 2011 and I thought I was ready to move on. Some of it was a bit of burn out, some of it was a bit of feeling under appreciated (and way under compensated), and some of it was personal. I had applied and been accepted into an alternative teaching certification program. I wanted to become a journalism teacher. I wanted to be the kind of journalism teacher I had in high school, who made a nerdy, awkward kid believe he could actually make a career out of doing something he loved. I thought I had a talent for stringing a couple of words together, and someone besides my mom had noticed.

"This story could run today in any newspaper across the country," I remember Mr. Hunt saying after I turned in one of my early newspaper writing assignments as a freshman. That excited me. His words motivated me. He made me believe in myself. I wanted to do that for the next generation of journalists. That was always my plan: Do this journalism thing for a couple of years, let it drag me around the country for a bit, then become a teacher when I got burned out.

I eventually shifted my focus to photography. Three jobs and four states later, I thought maybe the time had come. I felt like I wasn't necessarily doing the journalism business any favors any more. I was uninspired, unmotivated and I felt like the work I was doing wasn't making a difference to anyone, especially me.

So I started breaking the news to friends and coworkers. The reaction was mixed. I was surprised by some of the approval I got, but more surprised by some of the coaxing I received to rethink my decision. If you are doing it for the vacation and summers off you'll regret it, I was told by one friend who did something similar years ago. The message I got from an editor probably stuck with me most: We'd rather lose you to another paper than lose you from the field all together.

It was a lot to think about. Was I throwing my talent away? Was I giving up on everything I'd work for over the last 10 years? On top of it all, I had pitched this story idea at work that was suddenly being accelerated. I thought I'd have more time to work on it, but now deadline pressure was looming and I didn't know how I was going to get it done the way I wanted it to be done.

It was a Wednesday night. I walked out of the office, off the clock, with no clue where I was going. It was the first night of class and the first big payment for the teaching program was due. It was also the last night I was going to be able to shoot the video I needed to finish my project at work.

I had pitched this story idea about a high school welder, a tiny little girl named Tiffany who was trying to excel in this male-dominated field. She had been diagnosed with Spina bifida as a baby and wasn't even supposed to walk. Now she was an energetic high school student pursuing her unconventional passion. It was an interesting story and I wanted to tell it right. In addition to being a full-time student and working at her mother's restaurant on the weekends, she volunteered at a local boxing gym during the week. I'd shot photos and video of her welding and working at the restaurant, but I hadn't done any on-camera interviews or shot anything of her volunteering at the gym. And wouldn't you know it, that Wednesday night was the last time I was going to be able to get those pieces of the story. If I missed it, I wasn't going to have a very good video to turn in before it was set to run on Sunday.

It was such a defined crossroads for me. Go one way and your life completely changes. I'd made up my mind several times and changed it again and again during that short walk from the newspaper office to my car in the employee parking lot. Was I taking the easy way out if I didn't do it? Was I taking the easy way out if I did? I felt selfish either way. I felt like I was making the wrong decision either way. Eventually I pulled out of the parking lot, skipped the turn to go to class, and drove to the boxing gym.

I thought the story turned out great (written by a talented reporter) and the photos were OK (taken by a semi-talented photographer). As for the video, well, it could have used a little more work. But it told a complete story and I was happy with the result. I didn't realize how impactful it would end up being.

I was out of town the day the story ran. I was having breakfast with a friend, dissecting my decision with him over coffee and an omelet when my cell phone rang. It was the reporter who wrote the story, telling me she just got off the phone with a very excited Tiffany. Apparently a local boxer was so moved by her story and the video, he showed up at the restaurant where the girl worked and handed her $1000. She was floored. I was shocked. I couldn't believe someone would be so moved to do that. But it didn't end there. Over the next week more good things would happen for this girl. Eventually Tiffany ended up with a full scholarship to a local welding school from an anonymous donor. This girl from a single-parent household who was saving up tip money to go to college suddenly had her life changed.

I'm certainly not trying to take credit for all of that. She is an amazing person. She deserves her success and there are many people, including the reporter, her mother and a giving community that share in this happy ending. And as much as she thanked me, I really feel like I owed her so much more. Telling her story wasn't the only factor in me staying in journalism, but it certainly helped me realize how important this job can be sometimes.

The next Wednesday I went to that teaching class. I was told it was OK that I missed the first one, just make sure I come regularly from now on. But I wasn't there to attend class. I was there to let them know I wasn't coming back. Maybe next year, I told them, but for now, I feel like I still have stories to tell in this community. I feel like I can still make a difference where I am now.

It's been over a year, and I've got no desire to leave the journalism field at the moment. I've got the assignment of a lifetime coming up this summer, and I don't regret my decision one bit. Over the weekend, I was fortunate enough to place in a state-wide journalism competition. I was shutout in the photo categories, but I got second place in the "Best Video (greater than 2 minutes)" category. I honestly thought it was for a different video until I saw the final awards list today. I just smiled as I read the entry title:

"A bright spark"

It was such a great reminder of why we all do what we do as journalists: To win awards To make a difference. So thanks, Tiffany. You're story helped me believe in myself again. Sure, the video isn't perfect, but it's the perfect ending to this story for me.