Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Back to School

When the overweight, bearded guy who could have been a cross between a NYC intellectual and a lumberjack walked in the door, I was relieved. At least, he wasn't scrawny like the two kids flanking me. At least, he wasn't dressed in sweats with his hot pink boxers of dancing elephants exposed around his butt, like the guy who asked if I had an extra pen. Maybe he was 20 years younger underneath his beard, but had I run into him at a Starbuck's, I wouldn't have wondered if he was old enough to drink coffee.

No one asked if I was the instructor, as they did at the counter when I was picking up a parking permit. I grabbed the corner seat furthest to the back, near one of the blackboards and facing the black and white clock that hangs in every classroom I've ever sat in. Across the desk, a skinny Asian kid with black wire-rim glasses, a wanna be fu manchu mustache, and a ponytail was scrawling furiously into his composition notebook and filled two full pages during the five minute wait. Finally, the instructor walked in, and he was older than me. As in, he attended Woodstock older. Whew.

We went around the room and blurted out short introductions. Well, I'm sort of trying to figure out my major and you know, I like writing, so, ummm, I thought this journalism class could be good for me... Uhh, I haven't really decided my major yet but I need to get my credits, so that's why I'm here... We had a string of the same intros in more or less the same words until we came to the fu manchu kid. He put his pen down, closed his notebook, pushed his chair back, stood up, carefully placed his hands on the edge of the table after adjusting his glasses, cleared his throat, and then listed, in one run-on sentence, all the websites where he regularly submitted comments as well as all of the periodicals he read, including The New York Times, BBC, SF Chronicle, and as he pointed out with special emphasis, Al Jazeera. He then launched into his personal aspirations to re-unite North and South Korea because, as he saw it, North Korea has not been doing anything for a while now and there is no reason why the two countries should be separated. The instructor tactfully told the kid to shut up and then we went on.

When it was my turn, I said, Well, I graduated from college fifteen years ago and from law school ten years ago... And I swear some of the kids sucked in their breaths and their eyes got rounder. The girl who looked like she stepped out of Flashdance in her cut off black t-shirt hanging off her right shoulder even leaned in to taker a closer look, as if I were some exhibit at the world's fair. The one dressed like a dancer for Madonna flared her nostrils. I took a breath and continued. So, I'm trying out a career change and I would love to write some pieces to build my portfolio. The instructor (bless him) gave me a warm smile, nodded as if I were just another kid, and moved on.

The hour and a half passed quickly. We talked about the elements of a good piece of journalism, the importance of writing simply, clearly, the art of story telling. We read a couple of samples of beautifully written pieces. We then talked about our assignments for the week. I sat there, took notes, and absorbed what was presented, like the other kids in the classroom.

The instructor had been working as a journalist for over 40 years, with the last 22 at the Chronicle. Not too long ago, he took the buy out package that the Chronicle has been pushing on its employees as the paper shrinks more and more each day. And it made me wonder (again) if there is a future in this writing business. Even if I make it in that world, could I really succeed, as in make a living with it succeed? But as Jeff reminded me, I don't need to answer that today. Today, I get to be a student.


  1. "as if I were an exhibit at the World's Fair." I like that.

    Do you read Wide Lawns? Good stuff.

    I liked this post a lot.

  2. What a well-told story! You literally had me laughing out loud. I don't know which part was best. Bravo! Maybe newspapers are dead, but long live journalism - people aren't going to stop reading or writing. Keep writing them like that, and you'll do just fine. :-)

  3. The description of the Asian kid is so candid! It put a giant smile on my face to read about him, as he reminded me of a crazy oddball friend I had in college. It's always those skinny ones who are so worked up and hyper, aren't they?

    Thanks for your comment on my blog. I was honestly flattered to know that you read my post because I'm such a fan of your writing!

  4. the writing profession has never been a lucrative one. but it's very fulfilling. while book deals may no longer be the holy grail of a writer's career, there will always be readers. the medium of readership will be changed, though, so as you study do keep in mind how differently your work (and writing in general) will be presented in the future of media. i think writers, artists who are aware of this will be the pioneers, successful and all.

  5. Where can I get some of that courage?
    I graduated in 1990 with a degree in journalism and creative writing but didn't break into either one.
    I've been working at a law firm library for 8 years and although I don't always hate it, I always know I don't quite belong here.
    Actually this is one of the times when I hate it. Sleazily handled staff changes these days. For example one person who recently passed the 20-year mark was given a choice between the severance package and a 20-hour week. No paid holidays.
    I've been hoping to build a writing portfolio with my blogs but I'm easily discouraged by "comments: 0."

  6. Hi, Green, I haven't read Wide Lawns. I'll check it out.

    10:19 -- You made my day!

    Hi, Wandering Ju, I'm trying to decide if I would rather be skinny and worked up or chubby and mellow. Or somewhere in between.

    7:30 - I agree. Now if the visionaries would only speak up and point the rest of us in the right direction!

    Glen -- You are two steps ahead of me! I don't think it's about courage -- I think it's more about circumstances. If I hadn't been laid off, I'd still be in a law firm wondering what if. You'll figure something out. Hang in there.

  7. I'm a 39 year old lawyer - love those moments when I run into 'kids' and they are all "eeeew, old square lady." Kids, someday you too will be old, and a business professional surface can harbor non-squareness. Maturity and compassion will arrive for you someday, and if they don't, God help you.

  8. Hee, this reminds me a little of this conversation I had with my mom shortly after I had turned 30. She asked me how I felt and I told her that I basically felt the same and being 30 didn't matter much. (It freaks her out more cos I'm still single and baby-less, ah Korean mothers.) But I told her that it was weird to be perceived as being older, cos wasn't I the same? And my mom laughed and said it's the same when you're 40 or 50 or 60, you just get creakier.

    Of course, this is ignoring the fact that no one, non-Koreans and Koreans alike, ever thinks I am actually my age. I totally have an age complex and wish people thot I was older than I actually am. So milk it, cos now you can reap the benefits of school. I wish I could go back to undergrad, I totally would do it differently now and I sort of sigh thinking of all those learning years I squandered.