There is something fascinating, rejuvenating even, about looking at your profession through the eyes of a child. And sometimes, just when you think you've taught them everything they need, they teach you something you needed too, you just didn't know it.
I had the lucky opportunity to learn this last week while teaching the College For Kids newspaper class offered each summer through Winona State University. For five days, 13 newly-anointed newspaper staff members and I put our heads together to produce the CFK Times, a pint-sized newspaper stapled at the corner and containing everything my young staff thought was interesting enough to write about.
My job was not to make any editorial rulings on content, it was just to give them the tools they needed to make the decisions themselves, and to make sure we had a paper to distribute come Friday afternoon.
So we talked about story ideas and sources and scoops and ledes, about audiences and sections and deadlines. In a room full of bright minds my job was easy; they were curious and enthusiastic, and the newspaper sections written on the chalkboard quickly filled up with good story prospects.
Before long there was a genuine publication taking shape right before us, and I switched to circling the computer lab encouraging, praising and sometimes cajoling the staff along towards the looming deadline of Thursday afternoon.
But there was a young lady who confused me. She seemed so smart, so articulate, yet she was struggling. She couldn't pin down an idea for a story, nothing under any of the sections on the board appealed to her, and she seemed frustrated.
I threw some ideas her way for stories I thought would be interesting and simple to accomplish in the now dwindling time remaining, but she was unconvinced. Finally after a little Internet surfing and a lot of my urging she lit onto an idea and wrote a cute little story.
I was satisfied, but little did I know that I had failed terribly in that moment. It was something I wouldn't learn until exactly two minutes before deadline the next day.
As I circled the room in the waning minutes of our deadline class I was busy making sure everything was finished, things got saved and computers got shut down. My young charge who had seemed to struggle creatively the day before had finished her projects early but had a fresh screen open and was typing.
Just passing time, she said. But there on the screen were eight or nine lines of some of the best fiction I've read in a long time. Beautiful structure and smooth words painted an excerpt of an amazing story that I wish I could have seen the rest of. My mouth fell open.
Here I'd been feeding her ideas that I thought were good for news stories, but I never actually asked her what she wanted to write. There was no section called "Fiction" on the board, so she had acquiesced and wrote something that fit into the mold I'd unwittingly cast on the chalkboard.
This child is a writer like me and the others in the room, but her creative muse drinks from a different well than the stereotypical newspaper well I'd led them to. I implored her to let us use the story excerpt in our newspaper. I'd create a new section just for fiction, I told her.
It was such a close call to entirely missing a child's greatness right under my nose; I was mortified at how easily it happened. I thought I was being helpful creating categories, but really I'd only created barriers. I just assumed if someone wanted to do something that wasn't on the board they'd say so, but, in hindsight, we really don't teach children to do that at all.
Square pegs, round holes. If we shave off the edges to make them fit, what have we lost? How often does a child's talent wither unnoticed because we do just that?
Perhaps the beauty of College For Kids, Community Education, 4-H or any of a number of other organizations is that they open a vast array of experiences to children, open up the world, really, so kids can express excellence that we might not otherwise see.
As long as we are looking for it, that is, on their terms, not ours.
And then I remembered some advice that someone gave to me a long time ago (thanks, Mr. Durbin) and I passed it on.
"Keep writing kid," I told her. "Write and write and write. I'll be looking for your stuff in the bookstore someday. And thanks for the lesson."
Excerpt of a mystery story
By Joy Sprang
As the cat slowly came towards the table he held his nose in the air as if he was sniffing something. After I finished looking around to see if it was safe I quickly crept up from my position sitting down in the closet and walked quietly over to the table and looked at the table cloth. It had smudges of strawberries and chocolate"¦ along with stains of coffee. It was obvious that someone had been staying here for the past couple days. But Emma didn't want to be caught sneaking around in some old warehouse basement. So she quickly walked towards the door. But just before she could reach the doorknob someone grabbed her shoulder "¦without thinking she jumped and spun out of the mystery person's grasp"¦ she ran and ran until she found a door with EXIT printed on the top"¦