Sunday, February 5, 2012

Bernie's path to the pen

I decided to change the world in seventh grade by ending the Vietnam War. I knew I had all the answers and those clueless adults didn't. This was an attitude that had made me a semi-regular in the office of James Bowen, the principal of Van Antwerp Junior High School in Schenectady, New York, as he would remind me years later when I encountered him by happenstance. Mr. Bowen had little patience for seventh-grade lawyer wannabes. Fortunately, my English teacher, Dorothy Meyer, either believed in my own self-importance or was willing to let me make a fool of myself trying to show it.

The day before our three-page writing assigments were to be returned, Mrs. Meyer asked me to stay after class. I couldn't imagine what I'd done to piss Mr. Bowen off this time. Instead, she told me it was one of the best assignments she'd seen in her teaching career. I showed great promise as a writer, she said, and that she wanted to encourage me in that direction. Whether Mrs. Meyer really saw something in me or was merely displaying a bias - years later, I learned she was my aunt's college roommate - didn't and doesn't matter. Before long, I was spending my "draw-off" period in the school library reading coverage of the war and of a certain break-in at a Washington office building that seemed to involve the President of the United States in ways I couldn't yet grasp.

My parents, sister, brother and I listened to President Nixon's resignation speech on a handheld radio while eating Kentucky Fried Chicken on the floor of an unfurnished house the day we moved from Schenectady to the eastern Ohio town of Coshocton. I was hours away from leaving my mentor, Mrs. Meyer, not to see her again until my wedding 13 years later, and yet my life's course was set. Woodward and Bernstein had brought down a president, and it was the coolest thing in the world. On my first day at Coshocton High School three weeks later, a strange kid in a strange town sought out the one place that seemed familiar - the journalism/school newspaper room of Mr. Jeffrey Watson.

Thirty-four years later, the craft still calls. With the exception of a single year, when I took a government communication job out of desperation following a layoff, I've been a journalist since the day I walked into Mr. Watson's room in the fall of 1974. Reporting and writing has been my way of exploring the world and finding my place in it.

Mrs. Meyer, thanks for not sending me to the principal's office.

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