Learning on the job

Scoring a job related to your major is a milestone. Being paid more than minimum wage for that job is priceless. I’m still waiting to hear back from MasterCard on the proper term to describe interviewing former President Bush and getting paid for it.

I work as a freelance writer for a monthly news magazine in College Station. My editor sent me an assignment to cover the renovation and re-dedication last weekend of the George H. Bush Library and Museum for our December issue.

Covering the former president was what I can only describe as an education in itself, quite different from the classroom. As all of us will soon learn, our classes may help prepare us for our careers, but nothing can replace real-world experience.

I had assumed I would be led through the new exhibits, shown the changes made, get some pictures and call it done. Instead, I discovered I would be attending a media tour. But first, my name and birth date were required for a security check. Luckily, I’ve never earned a living working as a hit man on the side and job experience isn’t a security risk.

Honestly, I wasn’t that nervous about interviewing the former president, or at least I didn’t think I was at the time. I was more concerned about conducting myself in front of experienced journalists. I knew they would see how green I am. I had no idea what to wear, what to say, or what to do when I got there. No matter how big my smile is, it just doesn’t hide that ‘I have no idea what’s going on’ look that appears on my face in unfamiliar situations.

I arrived at the media tour early, but was still the last reporter inside. Not exactly the impression I wanted to make.

Dogs sniffed through the belongings of journalists from all the local media outlets including the Houston Chronicle, CBS and the Associated Press while they stood outside our meeting room chatting. I introduced myself to some of the less intimidating reporters but felt like I was in high school trying to make it “in” with the popular kids. Their welcome wasn’t exactly friendly.

It was both a blessing and a curse. I was no longer worried about their opinion or judgment of my skills; now I was nervous about meeting the president. I learned a long time ago the best way to conquer your fears is to give yourself as little time to think about it as possible and just go for it. The worst part is the anticipation.

However, time was on fears’ side; the tour took the better part of an hour. When the former president showed up, I was alternating between breathing deeply and reciting the questions I intended to ask in my head. To make matters worse, the Secret Service agents assigned to the former president kept performing security sweeps.

At one point, I was digging through my purse for my tape recorder and looked up to see a man about four feet wide and six and half feet tall eyeballing me. Certain I would be tackled to the ground at any moment; I cautiously removed my hand from my bag.

In order to alleviate the heightened awareness of the Secret Service, I looked around the room. Whether it was the prominence of the subject or the impressive replica of the White House Press room we were in, all of us were quiet while we waited. The television reporters were ready with their note pads and cameras; the photographers stood on the benches making sure the light was just right, and the newspaper journalists sat on the front row, ready to take down quotes and notes.

In this mock pressroom, I learned my first lesson in journalism: It ain’t always pretty and there’s no room for second-guessing.

Former President Bush arrived and took the podium. He spoke about how proud he was of the library and gave those who worked on it their due credit. He countered talk of himself with his trademark line: “My mother ensconced in heaven always told me, ‘George don’t talk about yourself.'” He then opened the floor for questioning.

I sat beside a journalist from the Associated Press. He started asking questions and for a second I thought he was reading my question list word for word; but it was not my list, it was his. The Chronicle reporter jumped in, then the TV reporters. My carefully prepared list was dwindling quickly.

I sucked up my insecurity and spit out a question and once that one was answered spit out another, nothing professional or eloquent about it.

The television reporter behind me followed up by asking questions on the current president — questions that were rude and disrespectful after the apparent pride the president had shown in his library.

But that’s what this particular reporter’s assignment was. Whether it was his personal agenda or a specific request from his producer, I’ll never know. It doesn’t really matter.

That reporter’s assignment, though he didn’t know it, was to help me find that line I’m not willing to cross to get a story. He was a model of what I don’t want to be as a reporter.

Most people define successful journalists as those willing to ask hard questions. I agree, to a point. Successful journalists are those willing to ask hard questions — while still maintaining tact and respect for their subject, even if that means being creative in getting the information.

Good journalists are hard to come by. Out of the 12 reporters attending the tour, two were able to maintain that standard, but even they were not willing to offer the newbie a friendly gesture.

I’m at fault too though. When you’re on a deadline, there’s no room to wonder if you’re stepping across boundaries not yet defined. Often it is only by crossing those boundaries that they become definable. This is called job experience. It is only by being uncomfortable that you learn to handle being comfortable.

Since coming to Sam, I have encountered some of the most honest and generous professors. They happen also to be journalists and editors. But I don’t know them as journalists on a deadline and I don’t know them as reporters on assignment. I know them as professors – like so many of my Sam peers know their professors — who love their trade or subject enough to pass it on to those willing to learn it.

They will be the first to tell you that easy lessons are meaningless. Only the hard ones stick, and they aren’t limited to the classroom. Internships anyone?

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