I have told anyone who will listen to me over the years that I only have one child, a daughter I love more than anything in the world. But, I have hundreds and maybe even thousands of “kids” I have taught and advised that I love and care about as if they were my own children.
Someone once chastised me for using that term, as they felt it demeaned students or treated them as less than. For me, I couldn’t imagine a more honest and heartfelt way to explain to these students what they mean to me.
They come to the classroom on unsteady journalistic legs and with fuzzy concepts about who they want to be. They arrive at the doorway of the student newsroom with the trepidation of a shy first-grader entering a new school where everyone else seems to know everyone else. They knock tentatively on my door, asking if I’m “Dr…. Filak?”
Years later, they graduate with a stronger sense of who they are and what they can be. They depart a newsroom where they are now “the big kids” who welcome the newbies with a confident handshake or a self-deprecating joke. They enter my office like Norm entered “Cheers,” flopping down in a chair and saying, “Hey man… what’s up?”
What they don’t understand is that I, like so many of us in this field of education, never stop thinking about them or worrying about them. We cheer for their professional successes and mourn their painful losses. We take pride in their work, whether it’s at the nation’s leading media outlets or in fields far from where they thought journalism would take them.
Once our lives intertwine over discussions of “noun-verb-object,” or why it is the Indians can’t seem to win a World Series, we never really part, regardless of the physical space between us or the amount of time between contacts.
I thought about this all last night as the coverage of the Capital Gazette shooting poured into my news feeds. Five people killed, two others seriously wounded at the hands of a disgruntled and imbalanced man. I knew none of these people personally, as was the case for most of the people I know. However, the overwhelming number of posts, tweets and stories journalists and journalism educators shared told me I wasn’t alone in my sorrow over this.
A friend who advises a student media outlet out west posted that one of her “kids,” who graduated in 2011, worked at the paper but was safe. Others on our adviser listserv shared a supportive sigh of relief for her, even as we knew five families lost a father, a mother, a son, a daughter, a husband, a wife or more.
And somewhere, some journalism educator or adviser lost a “kid.”
Reminders of “my kids” are everywhere around me. A wedding invitation is posted on our refrigerator. A fundraising T-shirt for a woman recovering from breast cancer sits in my dresser. A printer’s plate of our “We Need the A-T” page rests against a wall in my basement. Two paintings hang on the walls of my “man cave.” A resume from a mid-career professional sits in my in box with a “could you please see if this is OK” email accompanying it.
In my office, post cards, thank you notes and personal letters jut out at all angles from an overflowing cork board. Pictures of former staffs cover wall surfaces, next to the framed receipt that commemorates the time I tried to get the university to pay for some porn film an editor bought. (Long story…) Facebook updates tell me about their new jobs, new careers, new spouses, new children and new lives. Even as they reach their 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond, they remain to me one of “my kids,” mentally trapped in my head as the 21-year-old who showed up hung over out of his/her mind for my 8 a.m.
A few years back, two broadcast journalists were shot and killed by a disgruntled former colleague as they filmed a morning-show puff piece on the chamber of commerce. A local news crew interviewed me to do a localization on safety issues that should be addressed for journalists after this shooting.
Most of what I had to say didn’t make the final cut, mainly because I was arguing against the station’s premise that journalists needed to find ways to be careful these days. How? What could I possibly say that would have kept Vester Lee Flanagan from shooting two people in broad daylight? What lesson would have kept the Capital Gazette safe from Jarrod Ramos and his violent rampage?
And that’s what really kept me up last night. That’s what really bothered me.
I can teach them almost everything, but I can’t teach them this.
So, I do the best I can with what I have. I dance at their weddings and I mourn with them at funerals. I light holy candles in my hometown church, hoping it helps as they face “the Big C.” I edit resumes and I answer emails with supportive messages. I try to help them in any way I can.
Just before I headed to bed last night, a message popped up on my screen from one of my more recent graduates. He left journalism and now writes scripts for a telemarketing company. He’s content and yet restless, finding his way in this whole “adulting” thing everyone else seems to have under control.
He had a link to the quote from a staffer at the Capital Gazette who declared for all the world that not even something as abhorrent as what had just occurred would stop the presses that day:
“I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.”
He then wrote: “I read that quote in your voice by habit.”
Thanks, kid. That means more to me than you know.