As I prepare to leave a job I’ve loved, and worked very hard at for seven and a half years, I’m thinking a lot about work, past, present and future. My first paying job, way back in the day, was as a writer. My last paying job, which I hope is still decades in the future, will likely also be some kind of writing. In between, I’ve done a variety of things, including being a lawyer and a gym teacher (not at the same time.)
I wrote a weekly column for the Litchfield Independent Review during my high school years. The first five weeks were the investigative story I pitched to the editor, John Harmon, about the differences between rural and town schools.
While his politics and mine couldn’t have been further apart, we agreed that the country schools were not doing a good job of preparing students. I dug through school records in the courthouse, analyzing test results of students entering junior high, teacher education levels, libraries, hot lunch programs. The school superintendent and staff, not knowing what I was looking for, gave me a figurative pat on the head for being a good student and caring about education. Until the first column was published, that is. Luckily, I had completed my research before publishing the first column.
I wrote what I found: on average, students from one- and two-room country schools entered junior high more than a year behind the students who had gone to the town elementary school or the parochial school. Rural teachers were less-educated, their salaries lower, and if they acquired more education, they usually left for town schools. Rural libraries and music programs lagged far behind those in town schools. And so on.
I got a lot of flack for those columns, which only whetted my appetite for finding and reporting uncomfortable truths.
Test scores were not the whole truth about rural schools, any more than they are the whole truth about urban schools today. The disparities between rural and town schools, however, were an important and unreported reality. Among the other disparities were income, inability to participate in extra-curricular activities because of lack of transportation, and attitudes about “dumb farmers” that were part of the culture.
I think it’s rare that a journalist can report all of the 360-degree reality of any story. What we can hope to do is to accurately tell one part of an important story, and to tell it in such a way that people will find it interesting enough to read/view/listen/think about. Three small words — important, accurate, and interesting — pose a big enough challenge for a lifetime of work.
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I’ll be writing a lot more about work, from various angles, in the weeks ahead. Check back often!