As you may or may not know, I had the opportunity to speak at a high school commencement last evening — something that came about very unexpectedly after someone heard me speak at the Newseum earlier this year.
It was a really great experience, but I’m very glad it’s over! It was nerve-wracking. But I had a lot of great responses from it, especially from parents and journalism students.
I didn’t have much guidance when it came to the speech — they just said they wanted the kids to hear from someone “young and successful.” To which I replied, “Psht, you’ve obviously never seen my bank account and you know nothing about my personal life.”
So, in trying to figure out what to say, I went to a few people for advice, including our executive editor, Marcus. Knowing he’s done this sort of thing once or twice (psht), I asked him for some guidance. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: Marcus, I’m going to be the keynote speaker at a high school graduation. What should I say to them?
Marcus: Well, what were you like in high school?
Me: I was in a wheelchair most of the time, so I was that nerdy newspaper editor having wheelchair races up and down the hallways.
Marcus:There you go! Start with the wheelchair, end with bin Laden night, and you’re done.
So, that’s basically what I did. I’ve had multiple people ask me today to read the speech, so I decided to post it here. I’m very apprehensive about this — doesn’t matter that a toooon of people heard the speech yesterday. Something about posting it seems much more personal. So, don’t hate too much.
Also, remember, I did not type this out with the intention of having other people look at it, so forgive the (many) spelling mistakes and typos I’m sure I made.
Warning: It’s really long. About 10 minutes worth of long.
I graduated from high school in 2006 — not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, but enough time has passed to be able to look back and say, “Ahh, those were the days.”
After only taking a semester of journalism classes, I was about to become the youngest editor my high school paper had ever seen. It was a tiny school, Yorktown High, in east central Indiana. As terrified as I was, my journalism teacher had put a huge amount of faith in me — much more faith than I had in myself — and I knew I couldn’t let her down. It was her faith and encouragement that got me through the next two years and drove my passion for the field I can now call a career.
We made a lot of mistakes during my editorship — in fact, we misspelled the name of our newspaper, The Broadcaster, in the mast for our first edition. We left out the “o”, giving ourselves the “Bracaster” nickname that brought more than a few chuckles by our fellow students. We tried to do too much, stories too big, pretended to be experts on things we only knew about through Wikipedia. But we put our hearts and souls into each edition, something that I continue to do at the Washington Post.
While my time on my high school newspaper taught me plenty about being a leader and gave me the jumpstart on my career, what stands out as the most meaningful has nothing to do with journalism.
As editor, it was my job to write editorials for each paper. Not the best ethical practice, I now know, but as I said, we made some mistakes. I wrote editorials on abortion and capital punishment, the usual big-ticket items I thought I understood and now wish I could unpublish.
But there is one editorial I bring out every once in a while — one I would never take back. The headline read, “Living Life Sitting Down,” and it was one topic I was an expert on. During my 7th grade year, a series of accidents left me in and out of a wheelchair and on crutches. It wasn’t until October of my senior year that I could walk on my own two feet again.
Before the accident, I thought I knew what life was going to be — I played two sports every season and assumed that would eventually lead to an athletic scholarship. Basketball, tennis, field — take your pick. All of that went out the window, along with all of my self-confidence and future prospects.
I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself anymore. I was scared — I constantly felt like everyone was staring at the girl in the wheelchair, judging me for something I had no control over. Looking back, it’s something that no 12-year-old should ever have to feel. But, I can also say with confidence, that finding journalism changed a lot of that. It was the niche I was missing. It provided me with a home, a task, and a sense of accomplishment.
The confidence came back with time, as did my future prospects. Something drew me to journalism — the chaos, the stress, the excitement — I loved every piece of it. But it was the truth that always stood out for me. The First Amendment right to a free press is something I take very seriously — it’s the reason I always wanted to work at the Washington Post. A place that strives for honesty and pushes America to be a better democracy.
As much as I loved writing, I knew very early on that I didn’t want to be a reporter. I never liked relying on someone else for a story — waiting for a source to call me back, working around their schedule. It just wasn’t for me. But I knew I wanted to be a journalist.
That’s where layout design came in. It’s the perfect marriage of hard-hitting journalism and artistry. I love the amount of creativity it allows — I get to exercise that side of my brain on a daily basis. But it also gave me the opportunity to be an editor — to have my hand in on the stories.
After graduating from my tiny high school and handing over the paper to the next batch of students, I spent the next four years at Indiana University, and (truth be told), in the Indiana Daily Student newsroom. I did everything I could during my college tenure to prepare for a career in journalism. I feel very fortunate to have found my passion at a young age — if I could give you one piece of advice, it would be to find what makes you happy, and do it. Journalism made me happy — it’s a choice that I’ve never doubted.
I worked on my college newspaper staff all four years, spent one as editor of our yearbook. I went to countless conferences — never, ever, ever underestimate the value of networking. It was a weekend trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina, that introduced me to the man who gave me my first jon and and a conference in Vegas where I met my current boss at the Post. I studied in Paris and London, did four internships at top-15 newspapers, and completed a fellowship at the Poynter Institute. When I couldn’t get help through the school, I found internships on my own and applied for every grant possible to travel. It taught me about the independence that I desperately needed.
While I had plenty of fun in college and came away with more than one story I won’t want to tell my grandchildren, the majority of my time was centered on getting a job after graduation. I can’t promise that every step I took was the right one, and I can’t promise that this will work for everyone, but I can confidently say that all the hard work paid off in the end.
When I graduated from IU in June 2010, I had two options. I could head for Phoenix, where I had the position as sports designer waiting for me, or I could head for D.C., where I had a temporary news designer position at the Post on the table. Phoenix is a place I adore — I had already worked as an intern for the Republic and found the newsroom to be warm and inviting and a place I could easily see myself settling into. I had only ever visited Washington once. It was the big, scary, expensive city. The job was only guaranteed for 6 months and in a newsroom I’d never set foot in. It was the place I always dreamt of ending up, just not as a 22-year-old, fresh out of college.
But I couldn’t, in good conscience, turn down the Post. It was the riskier decision by far and I was terrified, but it was a good terrified — the kind of terrified that made me work harder than I ever thought imaginable in order to make my temporary stay permanent.
The first few months at the Post taught me as much as four years of class time had — I had the opportunity to work with Bob Woodward on his latest project, got to listen to Dan Balz talk politics, economics by Ezra Klein. I paid my dues, worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day — did anything I could to make it known that I wanted a permanent place in the newsroom.
After a few months, I had the opportunity to design the front page, meaning I annoyed my bosses into submission. It was a Monday in July — a very slow news month — so no one expected a plane crash in remote Alaska to take the life of a former senator. The pressure of the day was supposed to break me, but it did the opposite — the chaos calmed me, the pressure gave me confidence. That was the moment I knew — I was exactly where I was meant to be.
That was confirmed a few short months later. It was Sunday, May 1, 2011. I’d just finished a long, frustrating A1 shift, and was ready to go home and start my weekend. At 10:00 p.m., as I packed up, we got word that President Obama was going to address the American public at 10:30. The newsroom was empty, as it normally is on a Sunday evening. No desk editors, just a few copy editors, designers and web editors. As the person responsible to getting the paper out, I was hoping for news on Syria or one of the other countries in the midst of the Arab Spring — I was prepared for that. But what really happened was something no one could have been prepared for, especially not a fresh faced 23-year-old.
By 10:12, I was on a conference call with the top editors and most senior national security reporters. Everyone was thinking the same thing, but no one wanted to say it out loud.
Then I got an email from our executive editor — all it read was, “Is Osama bin Laden’s obit ready to publish?”
The rest of the night was a whirlwind. We pushed everything off A1 for the next edition, added seven stories within 15 minutes of hearing the news. Editors rushed in, some in their pajamas, all scruffy-faced from what was an otherwise carefree weekend.
I was the perfect picture of cool calmness — on the outside, that is. Instincts took over, and all of the fear and anxiety was pushed aside to make room for the journalist I’d always wanted to be. A huge part of me was convinced that one of my bosses would insist on taking the page from me — it was a moment bigger than any of us had seen, and with that came a certain amount of glory. But once again, those who I look towards for guidance showed me nothing but confidence in my abilities. They helped me along, cleaned up the things I didn’t have time to think about, but they let me drive.
On the inside, I was a nervous wreck, but we got through the night. When it was all over, people joked that my career had peaked at 23 — I’d designed the biggest A1 anyone had seen since September 11. My work was featured on Meet the Press and held up for the world to see on CNN and MSNBC. I was interviewed by bloggers and journalists around the country, all wanting to hear the story of how we published a paper.
But all that mattered was proving to myself that I could do it — not only could I survive at the Washington Post, but I could succeed. I stopped second guessing myself, stopped questioning why they would hire me, and realized that I wasn’t just behind the scenes, admiring the journalists from afar, but I was one of them. That was the night I stopped dreaming of winning the big design award and started dreaming of winning a Pulitzer.
Since bin Laden, I’ve designed the front page for the deaths of more dictators on the Axis of Evil, a devastating tsunami, and an earthquake that rattled the district. I helped tell the story of 56 underprivileged eighth graders given the gift of a college education and worked on a project that gave freedom to two men who spent a combined 50 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
None of this is meant to toot my own horn or to say that I’ve made it — that I’m the best I’m ever going to be. Far from it, in fact. I continue to make mistakes — even letting the words “Obama bin Laden” slip through on a headline recently. I continue to ask questions, regardless of how small they may seem or how obvious the answer may be. And I continue to look under every surface for advice and guidance.
But what all of this means is that you can do it — as corny and as cheesy as this sounds, and as many times as you’re going to hear this over the next month, nothing is impossible.
If I could go back to my 16-year-old self, I’d tell the girl in the wheelchair that everything is going to be okay. And I’m going to tell you all the same things that I would have told her.
Make mistakes. Make a lot of mistakes. Without the mistakes, you’re never going to know when you’re doing it right.
Find your passion — whether it’s journalism or medicine or music — find what gives you a sense of accomplishment and belonging.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. Life is full of choices. Some good, some bad, some in between, but very few will cause the kind of devastation we imagine they will.
Soak up as much knowledge as possible — it gets a lot harder once you’re not in school.
Don’t burn bridges. In fact, build as many as you can. You never know who’s going to give you your next job, or who’s going to turn you down for one.
Never write down anything you wouldn’t want your mother to read. And those Facebook photos — be careful. We officially live in the digital age where privacy means something very different than it did for our grandparents.
Always have a mentor to go to for guidance. Having someone you trust around to bounce things off of can make all the difference in the world.
Finally — have fun. Don’t take life, or yourself, too seriously. There will be plenty of time for serious, but when you can manage it, remember that life is an adventure and you only get one shot. So don’t waste it.