I have spent a lot of time at Clay-Chalkville High School.
I spent one morning reminiscing with a theater teacher about his nearly twenty years at the school. I spent a frigid morning when school was canceled due to icy roads snapping photos and a video of a vandalized front lawn. I spent National Signing Days in the auditorium, trying to keep up with all the student-athletes who were moving on to the next level of their respective sports.
I spent afternoons writing in my truck just outside the school, my white laptop resting against the steering wheel. I wrote about criminals who forced the school into lockdown, about a career technical center to be constructed in the back parking lot, about artificial turf for the football field. Every time, I wondered why this school was turquoise and tan, a beachy-colored building near the mountains.
I spent evenings after football practice shooting the breeze with the coaches in the athletic facility, watching the sun set over the green field. I spent fall Friday evenings in my truck in the parking lot before I entered Cougar Stadium to see another victory, eating a snack from Dairy Queen while listening to Paul Finebuam preview the weekend’s games.
I wrote a lot of positive things about this school, its city. I wrote a lot of things people did not like.
Today, I got to talk about it all with a dozen students in the broadcast journalism class there, students who have likely never read my stories, students who were born after the Major League Baseball home run record chase of 1998, students who do not know a world without unlimited text messages.
Today, I did not spend time at Clay-Chalkville High School. I invested it. There is a difference.
I talked about my background and experiences as a journalist, about the six basic questions every journalist aims to answer. I ran off a list of eight news values that are important at any journalistic entity, print or broadcast. I discussed the development of story ideas and how important relationships are in creating a successful future. I talked about “Show me, don’t tell me,” writing books and setting yourself apart by going the extra mile. I talked about the prisoner in Mississippi who identified me through a jail cell my first week in town, and the path to trust with the people I covered.
The students in class were attentive the entire hour I spent in their mint-green room, stumbling my way through my notes. They asked me when I knew I would choose journalism as my career path, about my favorite school subjects, about my process for recording interviews. They also asked me to come with them to explore Old Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa, to which I frighteningly replied, “No, thanks.”
When my spiel was over, and the students’ questions were exhausted, I thanked them for having me. One student said that I was cool, and informational. They said that I should come back in the future.
On Thursday, Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh was at Clay-Chalkville High School, making his final recruiting pitch to one of the top wide receiver prospects around. I was the school’s visitor the next day, an impossible act to follow. I have always thought of Harbaugh as a rather zany person. Some of the things he says and does are just bizarre, like that rap video he appeared in last year.
But the catchphrase from that video stood out to me after speaking to this class. I could see their curiosity, their eagerness to go record something, anything. I have often wondered lately about the future of journalism, what with “fake news” and copy editors being let go left and right. I have thought, at times, that all hope is now lost. This class’ ambition was apparent, and it was refreshing, energizing. It reminded me about the thrill of a new story idea, of my name in black ink just below a headline.
Then Harbaugh’s famous catchphrase hit me: “Who’s got it better than us?”