This is an excerpt from a work in progress called The Town I Live In.
The student newspaper of Fullerton Union High School is called Pleiades. In all my time writing for Pleiades, I never knew what the hell that word meant. A bit of online research informs me that it is a star cluster and has a variety of mythological meanings. For example, it was common among the indigenous peoples of the Americas to measure keenness of vision by the number of stars the viewer could see in the Pleiades.
My high school journalism class was a joke. It was basically a free period. We had to write like one or two articles a month, and I could usually crank them out in a couple days. Most of the time, classes consisted of eating chicken strips from Choice Burgers, joking around with my friends, wandering the halls, and flirting with this one girl I liked.
The journalism teacher also taught Spanish. She seemed to view the journalism class as a free period too, because she didn’t do much. Looking back, I’m kind of mad that she didn’t actually teach us about journalism. There was no textbook, no readings, and no homework except the couple articles.
If I was teaching that class today, I would make students read about the history of journalism in America. I would take them on field trips to local newspaper offices. I would have them read and discuss the works of great American journalists like H.L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson, Bob Woodward, etc. I would talk about the difficulties and struggles that have beset modern journalists in the digital age. I would talk about the political bias of certain newspapers like, for example, how the Orange County Register tends to have a conservative/Republican bias. I would discuss the corporatization of the news industry. I would make my class watch season five of The Wire, so they could see the compromises newspapers are forced to make, as they are in danger of becoming obsolete.
The only thing I learned about journalism in high school was that it was easy and not really that important.
Thankfully, I come from a family of writers. My dad was the editor of the town newspaper in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin where I grew up. My brother was an editor of his college newspaper in Seattle, WA, and he would send us copies. I remember being impressed by the quality of the articles, particularly my brother’s. He wrote with passion and clarity about things that were clearly important to him. I wanted to do the same.
So I pitched an idea to the editors of Pleiades. I wanted to write a column that could be about anything I wanted. They said okay. I don’t think they really cared either way.
My first article was about a common pop culture trend I’d observed. People were really into something called Tamagotchi, or gigapets. They were these little handheld, digital “pets” that you had to “feed” and “play with” like real pets. I found this whole thing to be absurd and even a little frightening. If people started replacing their pets with robots, where would they stop?! Would we have gigafriends, gigateachers, gigasex? In light of our increasingly digitized world, I think my prophecies were pretty spot-on.
So I wrote a satirical column about Tamagochi and, when the paper came out, lots of people (incuding teachers) would come up to me and say, “Loved your column.” We even talked about my article in my English class. I realized then an important lesson that I have tried to stay true to. You write best when you write about things you care about. If you are forced to write about something you don’t care about, your writing will be boring. But, through my column, I was able to write my true thoughts. It was around this time that I began to see myself as a real writer.