Making an Im-Press-ion

(Appeared first in print 4/10/2017)

When you’re a teenager, it’s easy to wonder if you’ll ever make a difference.

That’s not a problem for the kids of Pittsburg High School. Not after turning their southeast Kansas school newspaper into a star of investigative journalism, and turning their school’s administration upside down in the process.

Yes, really.

For those who missed it, the teens probed into the background of their newly hired principal and found that some of her credentials didn’t seem to add up – in particular, that the university where she earned two of her degrees didn’t appear to be an accredited institution or even to have a physical address or working website. In fact, they discovered, it had a reputation as a “diploma mill.”

By the time they were done, what could have been a routine story about a new principal ended up by asking some very awkward questions. Awkward enough that the principal announced her resignation, just a month after her hiring.  By then, the kids had the attention of the national media and the thanks of the school district’s superintendent.

“We’d broken out of our comfort zones so much,” 17-year-old Connor Balthazor told the Washington Post. “To know that the administration saw that and respected that, it was a really great mo ment for us.”

I’ll add my own applause to that. These are the kind of lessons that need to be learned, not just by high school journalists, but by any citizen in a democracy.

And it happened because the kids had the opportunity to learn, the freedom to act, and the initiative to do something about it.

Kansas school papers, like Colorado ones, have a guaranteed freedom of the press for high school journalists. (In fact, Colorado passed that guarantee while I was still in high school myself.)  The schools have only a limited ability to restrict what appears in the paper – mainly, things like libel or obscenity – allowing students, like their grown-up counterparts, to work uncensored.

But that only matters if you have writers who are willing to go past the obvious. And much journalism, whether high school or professional, is comfortable to stick with the routine. The state championship winners. A new class or a retiring teacher. Much of it is necessary stuff, but it doesn’t often demand much of the writer or the reader.

To go further, a good reporter needs to remember two principles. Always ask the next question. And always verify the answers you get, even if they seem to make sense. Especially then. “If your mother says she loves you,” the old newsman’s saying goes, “check it out.”

In a day when many newspapers are folding (no pun intended) and when social media allows the half-true and the false to circulate more rapidly than ever before, that’s an important skill for everyone.

These kids have learned it. And then some.

And in the process, they’ve taught a few lessons of their own.

They’ve shown a reminder that learning isn’t limited to the classroom, the test, and the textbook. The extracurriculars – newspaper, theatre, music, and more – offer a host of valuable lessons for the student who’s willing and able to take advantage of them.

They’ve reminded us that an alert media can make a difference. That an alert citizenry can make a difference. All it takes is a willingness to look, and a determination to keep looking.

They’ve even given us some hope for the future, that the next generation is ready and eager to join the conversation.

That sounds like a lot to build on one article in one school paper, I know. But they’ve worked to build it. And I suspect they’ve learned that it’s a work that never stops. The name of “journalist” is always being re-earned. Much like the name of “freedom” or “democracy.”

Let’s get to work, shall we?

Joy of the Moment

Missy stabs with her finger as the Christmas lights come into view. “Look … Lookit!”

She cranks the volume as high as she can when the Hallelujah Chorus comes on. “Yeah!”

She carts her hand-sized Christmas Bear with her everywhere, often cramming the poor red-and-white toy with glee into spaces it was never meant for, like a CD compartment or her overstuffed purse. It somehow soldiers on, its Santa hat hanging by a thread.

In short, if there were a job opening for Christmas Spirit, our disabled ward would be ahead of the competition by about three reindeer and a jingle bell. And it’s a bit infectious. Turn her loose on A Christmas Carol and not only would Scrooge redeem and Tiny Tim walk, but the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come would be leading a chorus of “Feliz Navidad.”

That kind of joy.

That’s a word I don’t use lightly. To be honest, it’s a word you don’t hear much anymore, outside a few seasonal songs. We talk about happiness, we revel in fun. But joy is something deeper, more wonderful, less tied to circumstance. A toothache can steal happiness but joy can live even in the darkest of places.

It’s a quality we badly need now.

You’ve seen the headlines. They’re not the sort to linger over. Appeals to fear. Calls for division. Angry men with angry words about the dangers of a faraway people, too different to be trusted. Some of those angry men wear beards. Some wear three-piece suits.

They build nothing except walls. They give nothing except grief. And too often, people follow in their wake, pulled by the confidence of someone who seems to know where to go, how to get there and who to blame.

It’s a confidence born of arrogance. And it’s really the antithesis of everything that joy stands for.

Because joy, at its roots, is humble.

To truly “get” joy, you have to be able to be astonished. That’s less easy than you think. It means admitting you don’t know everything. It means abandoning cynicism. It means cutting free of past and future and allowing yourself to marvel in the wonders of now.

Maybe that’s why Missy does it especially well.

An outside observer might wonder what she has to be joyful about. Her physical disabilities means she usually takes slow, careful steps through life, balanced on an arm, a wall or a piece of furniture. Her mental disabilities mean that she’s sometimes four, sometimes 14 and sometimes 42 – in particular, able to understand a lot of what’s said to her, but with limited ability to communicate back.

But maybe those challenges have also made her blessings possible. Because she moves through life slowly, even small things can catch her eye. Because she has a “younger” perspective (I hesitate to say more innocent, knowing some of the mischief she’s capable of), those small things can be new over and over again, and acknowledged without any pretense. Patterns and traditions are often a thing of comfort for her, and few times carry more tradition than Christmas.

Put it together and you have someone constantly open to joy, giving it, receiving it and reflecting it.

I’m not suggesting all of us can or should live life exactly as she does. (For one thing, the number of intact Christmas Bears in the world might approach extinction.) But the general lessons remain viable, whatever our situation or level of ability. Take time to truly see what’s around you. Experience the moment as a moment, without the fears of the past or the dread of the future. Share the good you find without hesitation.

It doesn’t have to be a Pollyanna approach, sweeping all the bad stuff into a corner and pretending it’s not there. But over time, it can take away some of the power that bad stuff has. When even simple things can be a source of wonder, it’s harder to hold onto fear and anger. Harder to remain behind walls when you’re always running to the windows. Harder to stand apart when any new person could be a new chance to share the joy you’ve found.

In a world torn down by fear, joy builds.

So go ahead. Look around. See what you find.

The Christmas lights are waiting.