Through high school, it was simple. Give me a pen and paper or a laptop, even a typewriter. It didn't matter. I had devoted the first fifteen years of my life to the volumes of young adult, literature and fantasy, and now considered myself fluent in the language of fiction. I could write prose. I could craft poetry. I could wind lyrical lines around didactic verse, allegory ascending from assonance, resounding off the crash of cacophony and conceit.
Reporting, by contrast, would be a cinch. Take a few notes. Interview a few people. Write a nut graf and support it with some miscellaneous quotes. Simple. Easy.
The faint glow of streetlights still filtered through the blinds as I dressed Saturday morning. The clock on my desk read 4:30. That was fine. I had always imagined I'd be awake before dawn on my first official college weekend. Only in my Hollywood-addled visions, I had imagined a sleepless night of neon raves, of Smirnoff and Miller, the euphoria and the headache.
But the Youth Project had needed a reporter to cover a Saturday morning conference, and I had hastily agreed. Backpack slung over shoulder, I tiptoed across the hall and down the stairs, past a mystified security guard, to the shuttle stop on the corner of Chicago and Sheridan.
I waited and waited. I pulled out my phone. 6:15. The Chicago shuttle should have been here 11 minutes ago. A runner passed, I inquired. Sure enough, the bus comes at 6:04 – every weekday. Saturday transit would not begin for six hours.
Opal blue sky now jutted through dawn's gray haze. I yawned. To the Metra, I thought, and left for Davis street. Joggers and bikers began to appear, extended leashes and weekend briefcases swaying in their midst. It was getting late.
On the train, I rummaged through my backpack for cash like a seventh grader rummages for history homework the night after a South Park marathon. Andrew Jackson's not there, and everyone knows it. I looked up from my booth in the train at the attendant, hoping he might forget about me. I glanced at the gray haired suit and tie across from me. Maybe he would take pity on me. Maybe he would pay for me. He did, but that didn’t make the rest of the way to the UIC Forum any easier.
I missed the first bus and then boarded the wrong one. By the time I oriented myself, the sun was bright in the sky. All the while, my head throbbed and my stomach knotted, the lingering punishment of four hours of sleep.
My head was still throbbing as I entered the forum at 8:45 a.m., 45 minutes late and just 15 minutes before the start of the Next Gen Illinois conference. The conference brought together youth leaders from across the state. They would vote on a policy agenda to overhaul social justice in the state of Illinois. All I had to do was write about it.
Which, to borrow a cliché, was easier said than done. I moved from the lobby to a sparsely decorated conference room filled with five or six rows of chairs. My first interview was with two students from Asian Americans Advancing Justice sitting at the front.
“Um,” I said.
And so went most of my questions. “Um,” the native cry of incoherent teachers and modest children, commandeered my speech. The teenage, “like” made itself known in equal measure. I had done some research the night before, but not enough. I had no questions prepared. My notebook sat on the desk in my dorm, so I scrawled the interviewees’ names and emails on a conference pamphlet. Follow-ups went un-asked. I stuttered and stammered and repeated myself.
I didn't just sound unprofessional, though. I looked it. My shirt was untucked and my hair unkempt. My eyes, I saw later, were sleep-deprived clouds.
The day bottomed out around noon when, instead of waiting for an interview, I accosted Dan Rutherford, the Illinois State Treasurer, in the forum’s entryway. Long of leg and broad of shoulder, he was one of the few people before whom I still looked 12, and he spoke to me accordingly. But I suppose that was my fault. My list of prepared questions had a single entry.
"What are you going to do to ameliorate the rising costs of college tuition?" I asked. Rutherford didn’t flinch. He rattled off his list of accomplishments and plans in that arena, including the nearly seven billion-dollar Bright Start Plan. I had no rebuttal, no follow up. With the college tuition skyrocketing in Illinois, I had assumed he’d done little. I hadn't done my homework.
The conference ran till 5 p.m. My laptop died at 2, my phone at 4:30. I interviewed dozens of people, but failed to get the governor, his opponent or anyone from the political kitchen sink that spoke at the conference. Save for the ground-breaking interview with Rutherford, that is.
Streetlights once again washed the blinds by the time I returned home that night, exhausted. At least now all I had to do was write. One day at Starbucks, three double-pump-no-foam-triple-shot-lattes, and 1,000 words later, I sent in my story.
The response came in less than an hour: rejected. The editor didn't even have to read the whole article. She didn't even have to read past the first paragraph. The flowery prose that had won the hearts of high school English teachers was useless here, equal parts tedious and superfluous. I didn't even have a lede. I had a jumble of big words with little meaning and a tenuous connection to reality.
So I wrote and re-wrote, edited and hemmed. The piece was published, a week late, but published. It was terrible, I'll admit, but it served its purpose. The youth leaders got their story out. I got my accomplishment, my page views, my Facebook likes. The $30 payment helped too. The next day, I took another assignment, but I brought my notebook instead of my hubris.