How I Stay Young Going Back To High School Journalism

Apr 26, 2019

When you are 66 years old, there is no denying it.

It says so, right there on my state of Ohio driver's license: 12-06-52.

That is aged, but not ancient.

But it is ancient enough that, on most mornings, I stumble out of bed, unsteady on my feet. My surgically repaired left knee is more often than not throbbing. My lower back doesn’t want to hold me up. My arthritic shoulder is barking at me, Face it, pal, you're getting old.

If you are my age or older, you know the drill.

The symptoms fade quickly on those mornings when I know that I am scheduled to go out to Walnut Hills High School to work in the journalism laboratory with teacher Samantha Gerwe-Perkins and the staff of The Chatterbox, the student newspaper.

I pull into one of the visitor's parking spaces (if there is one; Walnut Hills is a crowded place these days, with over 3,000 students, grades 7-12.)

I'm buzzed into the school office, where I am known, after five school years of advising and mentoring a newspaper staff that churns over many of its people each year as some graduate and go on to college.

But, still I have to sign in with a photo ID and my driver's license. Even the machine recognizes me – one look at my driver's license and it automatically spits out the ID sticker I am expected to wear.

I stroll down into the main hall and around the bend to the journalism lab. I'm usually getting there just as classes are changing and I protect myself from a stampede of students hustling to get to their next class.

When I walk in the classroom, my driver's license is a liar.

I'm not 66 anymore.

The aches and pains fade away.

I feel as young as one of the 20 to 25 kids bustling around the classroom, some of them eating early lunches of sushi and Belgian waffles as they work.

There is laughter everywhere.

There are small groups of student journalists off in corners working on projects – some editing copy, some laying out pages, some just talking about what exactly it is they want to say with their stories.

They may be young and relatively new to journalism but they understand that this can be fun.

Much of that is due to their teacher, Samantha, whom they all address as "GP," because Mrs. Gerwe-Perkins is a mouthful. And, while she keeps the peace in the lab, she is also someone the kids can joke with.

She understands that putting together a newspaper – even an eight-page high school newspaper – takes a lot of work. She makes them understand the meaning of deadlines.

GP is the best.

GP sits at right with Wilkinson and some of her students in 2016.
Credit Courtesy of Howard Wilkinson

When I was the age of these young journalists, we had a journalism adviser named Mr. Palmer, who was getting up there in age and counting the days until retirement.

I was made the editor in chief of my high school paper, The Hilltopper, at Belmont High School in Dayton.

Our faculty adviser had totally lost interest and we were on our own.

Which was fine by me.

But we would have had a much better paper, I believe, if we had someone like GP around to steer the ships.

On our own, we now and then ran that ship straight into the rocks.

These students adore GP. They worship her.

Would you not do the same if you had a high school teacher who dressed in a milk carton costume on Halloween?

So, what is my function at The Chatterbox?

When I first come in to class, GP and I talk about who she thinks needs a little "TLC" on his or her story, some advice on how to get a good story that may have run off the rails back on track.

I work with the kids one at a time, or sometimes in groups of two or three, depending on the story.

Understand this: These young people are exceptionally smart. That is part of the deal when you are admitted to a world-class academic high school like Walnut Hills.

There were no standards in my day for getting into Belmont except that you lived nearby and could fog a mirror. There are rigorous standards for these kids and they are constantly working to meet them.

So, when you talk to them, you never, ever talk down to them.

I never lecture them. I very rarely talk to the staff as a whole.

What I do is engage them individually or in small groups in a discussion:

So, Chyna, tell me what you want your readers to take away from this story?

So, Delaney, what are the strongest quotes you have?

So, Caroline, how much background do you need in your story? Can you put in context for the reader what is happening today?

We work together. We talk it out.

And, in the end, we come away with a well-written, informative story.

Probably the hardest thing to teach student journalists is a notion that they don't really like to think about: Most people never finish a newspaper story they have started to read, unless they are extraordinarily interested in the subject.

So the message I convey (gently) is simple: Get to the point. Write your story so it flows naturally and keeps people's attention. Don't let it sputter and run out of gas.

Wiklinson's 2018 students say "thank you."
Credit Courtesy of Howard Wilkinson

I've grown so fond of these young people that it just wrenches my heart every year when a large group of them leave to go off to college.

But, then again, that is what they are there for – a chance at a new adventure in life, whether they study journalism or something else.

They often treat me as a kindly grandpa – but the grandpa whom they suspect was kind of cool in his younger days. (If they still say "cool.")

The things they do for me to show their appreciation always touch my heart.

In December, I was not around Walnut Hills for my birthday, but the Chatterbox staff shot a series of very funny Twitter videos wishing me a happy birthday.

Every year, there are handmade birthday and thank-you cards that all of the kids sign.

And, best of all, when I walk in the room, I see their eyes lighting up.

The fact is that whatever I have done for them to teach them good journalism and make them better writers, they have done more for this old fellow.

They make me feel good. And they convince me with their actions that – if they choose to be – each and every one of them can become a talented, thoughtful and observant journalist.

Just what we need from the generation coming up.

Here's one thing I have never, ever had to preach to them about, because they know it intuitively – as journalists they are not what the man in the White House says they are – the enemies of the American people. They know perfectly well they can be the best friends the people of their school and the broader community will ever have.

Isabel Nissley, a junior and an extraordinarily talented writer, put it best in a February issue devoted to #EverydayJournalism.

Although student journalists are often dismissed as too young to have an impact, we still report on everything we can, Isabel wrote. Because we can have an impact.

From looking at local controversies to societal problems, we are informing our readers. By writing about everyday issues that we all face from different perspectives, we are trying to open the minds of students, staff and community members alike.

Everyday, when WHHS student journalists decide to investigate, photograph, and write, we are working to inform, influence and entertain the WHHS community.

Whether it be by covering the impact of national tragedies at WHHS or interviewing students on current events, The Chatterbox is proud to create #EverydayJournalism.

And I think you can see why I am proud to help them.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

 Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.