Friday, September 3, 2010

Rahm Emanuel, Africa for Journalists and a Potential Teaching Book, Not Necessarily in That Order

Much going on as of late, though nothing that seems big enough in and of itself to report.

School has begun for my kids (though now they are off for a very long weekend, which leads all parents to wonder what's the point?, and, in my case, why are we being tortured like this?). I love my children, but three and a half days without the little tornados tearing up the house and insulting each other (newest dig I heard: Guess what? What? Shut up!) and demanding entertainment and expensive gifts? That sort of spoiled me. I am slowly, painfully, re-adjusting.

School hasn't quite begun for the high schoolers I used to teach, and that has been very weird for me. It is certainly something I've been thinking about. 

Mostly, I have been wracked with terrible, painful memories of how I was attacked (for basically nothing), and the hell that I and my family endured. I don't want to think about that anymore, and somewhere--though I have to dig sometimes to find it underneath the mess that was piled on top--I still had wonderful experiences teaching, and I tend to think only positive things about my former students.

This morning, I was finally sorting through my teaching files, and while there are hundreds of papers I tossed, I also realized, as a thought to myself (which I never have): you were, in fact, the rockstar teacher. You have everything any English teacher could ever need or want. 

From how to run a Socratic seminar to epitaph exercises for Hamlet to creative writing games and contests to an amazing collection of notes for discussion about countless famous short, I had been busy. Here was the tangible proof that I had barely come up for air in half a decade, that I was ready for anything, that I was always trying to learn. 

It made me tired just looking at it.

I still considered burning everything, but I decided to just park it in a closet for now. Maybe the mildew will get to it. Maybe I'll put it in a book.  Not the upcoming memoir, but something else, some sort of teacher guide...

Meanwhile, yesterday, a Democratic activist I admire was getting hot and bothered about Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff. Calls were being made for his firing (I am, and have always been, fundamentally opposed to anyone calling for anyone's firing...though there are a couple of people  I wouldn't mind seeing booted out of their respective offices, but that's not for me to say, and I'd still feel somewhat bad about it. It's because I'm too nice--which has long been my problem).

So Rahm's getting trashed on Twitter, but I've seen Rahm getting trashed before. He has, apparently, a caustic side. We went to the same college, Sarah Lawrence. I did not know him there, but I recall one of my peers interviewing him when he worked for the Clintons. The story goes that he did something to irritate someone and got demoted to working inside, quite literally, a closet, with what he described as "a Playskool phone."

That cracked me up. I liked his no b.s. manner then, and I still like it. Rahm worked his way back up, and he is well respected as a strategist and leader.

When the Bluedog Democrats were opposing healthcare reform and Rahm declared that action and their thinking as "f-ing retarded," I didn't take offense. I thought those words were apt, the newly-verboten R word notwithstanding, and I applauded him for speaking the truth.

Still, Rahm has, according to legend, sent certain people (or one person?) dead fish wrapped in newspaper. I'll admit that's sort of freaky and weird. But hey: it sends a message.

New legend has it that he stuck his knife into the table in a restaurant and shouted the word (about somebody?) "Dead!" but I don't know if that's true. It wouldn't surprise me, and again, it's freaky, if it happened, and oddly reminiscent of or indicative of mob movie mania, but that's nothing too terribly new. 

I'm not saying it's right; I don't think it's right (and I certainly did not like hearing words like that applied to me back in March), and I sincerely hope that it wasn't actually directed to someone who was there.  

The points are these, however: I don't call for anyone to get fired. Never have, never will. And I always appreciate honesty and lack of artifice. 

I also heard from my former newspaper editor, a man who had a dramatic style, too, but for whom I'll always have admiration, because he is smart, good at what he does, and sometimes incredibly funny, and humor makes everyone golden, in my book.

Example: my editor was once writing a recommendation for my colleague (whom I'll discuss later) and he was, in a slightly odd fashion, reciting the words aloud as he scrawled them in red pen on a piece of scratch paper.

We worked in a bullpen, and it was always noisy, chaotic, and rather hard for me to concentrate. This was sort of making it harder, so I just sat back and listened. "C--- is a commendable rookie reporter," my editor wrote (or something like that). "He works as long and hard as he needs to in order to get the story. He strives every week to make his articles stronger...he is one of the most impressive young reporters I've had the pleasure to hire and edit....even if he is a towelhead."

The bullpen exploded into laughter, with no one laughing harder (he was, in fact, slow clapping and tears were dripping from his eyes as he nearly fell out of his rolling chair) than the rookie reporter in question. I think he was part Indian, slightly exotic looking, though not really.

That is one of my best memories of being a reporter, actually. Imagine that sort of thing happening now, or happening in a school? It's rather unthinkable, isn't it? But why? Why can't we learn to laugh at ourselves? Why can't people take good risks with humor?

What makes something funny is, oftentimes, the element of surprise. Irreverence can work, as well.  I appreciate anyone who can take a risk like this and, in that way, bring joy to others.

Now my former editor and I are both on LinkedIn, which is how we reconnected, though neither of us ever really checks it, and he mentioned to me last night, with sentimentality and concern, that a former journalist with the paper was killed in Afghanistan last year.

I did not know this man but I read about him online, and it made me think about the sort of classic journalistic adventurer's story. I recently read a novel, "Not Untrue & Not Unkind," by Ed O'Laughlin, about journalists working in Africa in the 1990s. That's about the same time I was a reporter. 

There were some glimmers of greatness in this novel (which I had to return to the library as it was overdue), though one line I specifically remember is an account of mountain gorillas in Rwanda. O'Laughlin describes them as charging in with "a symphony of farts."

There was also quite a bit of minutiae that wouldn't appeal to someone who hasn't reported and/or edited for a newspaper. But I liked the novel because it reminded me of doing this work, and of hanging out, after the very long hours spent finalizing stories by deadline, and hearing the stories of some former reporters who were visiting, back from their new lives as intrepid stringers working in places such as Bosnia and Africa.

One reporter's story sticks out in my mind--being chased by rebels and the reporter shot-putting his sat phone across the border before it could be confiscated, and then running for his life, running for his career.

He made it; he lived to tell the tale. And as we listened to this story (I do not recall any more precise details), my colleague's eyes were filled with dreams and admiration.

"I'm going to do that," he said, "I want do that. Go to Africa."

Africa was the place to be, for sure. A patchwork of heartbreaking tragedy, political stories that certainly had historical (past and future) implications for the rest of the world.

Reporters should, I felt (and still feel), go to Africa, because the rest of the world needs to read stories about what is happening there. If people from other nations can't be bothered to help Africans, at least they should be put on notice by its myriad, horrifying examples of what could happen in their own lands: hunger, dystopia, displacement, massacres, political corruption.

I told my reporter friend, "If you go to Africa, and I think you should, do not have sex with anyone there. Anyone. Seriously. One in four people in Africa has HIV." I felt like I was giving my little brother a sex ed talk.

But my friend wasn't embarrassed (he was younger than I was, so I had that protective feeling toward him). He just looked at me wide-eyed, listening. Then I felt bad about preaching. "Ok, fine, if you have to have sex with someone there, just be careful. Promise me that. But try to stay celibate while you're in Africa. I just think it's wise."

He promised me. 

I do not know if he ever went to Africa. I lost touch with him, can't find him, though I think he went back home to Canada. Neither can my former editor, and we both think of him sometimes.

Journalists don't forget the stories they covered, and they seem, also, not to forget each other.


  1. Dear Elizabeth,

    I thought about you, with "back to school" unfolding, and am happy to see you're moving on. Way to go! It's going to feel better and better, letting all that go, you already know. Meanwhile, I very much enjoy the way you've woven this post together. I always like it when you write about your kids. And your review of the novel is especially intriguing because you lace it with your own validating experiences. Thanks very much, peace and happy weekend.


  2. Thanks, Diane, I appreciate your read and your kind, as always, words.



  3. Amazing post. Glad I found this blog. I'm sure it must be hard not to be teaching, but it'll get better. I think you want to value the positive memories without idealizing them, but also without letting the way things ended overshadow the rest. Besides, it might just be a pause, not an end. Or maybe it had to happen in order for better things to come your way (such as more time to write the novels).

    Keep up the good work!

  4. Aurelie, thanks much. The not teaching comes in waves of relief or pain. At first, it was a relief. I have been feeling strange since the beckoning of the new school year, though. Much sorting out of what I'm feeling has been necessary, and when I do this, wondering if I'm mourning it or not, I still end up coming to the conclusion that I'm really glad I'm not going back there. The pain of what happened to me is still too fresh, and I don't want to relive it and sometimes can't deal with thinking about it.

    I had had a feeling for two solid years that I needed to get out because I felt very used, a very strong feeling that I foolishly (or not?) ignored.

    (I wrote a piece stating exactly all of that, but it'll be Book material, i think, not for the blog).

    Anyway--the perspective is different, now, for sure. I remain interested in literature and writing and education, and it's a question now, I think, of how to reconcile those interests and skills with not--necessarily--teaching classes.



  5. Very touching and a special reminder of exactly why I read your postings. I feel as though I got a deal. Was in three in one day? Thank you!

  6. You're sweet, @faithful reader. Thanks for that.



  7. Let me just say WOW. I had to print this out. It's very good reading.

    You go, girl!

  8. Thank you! I am sort of swamped right now with freelance projects and my book plans, so I am not quite sure when I will post again. Glad this one was long...