Monday, October 26, 2009

The Story Told, Part I: The Prologue

This may very well turn into two parts, because I want to get it all out, every aspect, and there's no better time than now.

It's been over three years since I was "reassigned" as adviser of College Park's student newspaper, The Claw. All the kids who were on my staff have now graduated. No students currently attending C.P. can remember a time when I ran the newspaper or seeing the original "Nolan's Rants" column in print rather than in blog form.

A lot of what happened in my one year as adviser has begun to fade from memory; although, the embers of anger still flare occasionally. The first issue of the current edition of The Claw came out Friday and raked the coals a bit. There was a time when the smoldering rage would keep me up at night. That's what happens when you put your heart and soul into something, The Man takes it away, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it.

The Saga:

In the summer of 2005, I heard that the long-term adviser of The Claw had taking a job in greener pastures at another district. It was a position I'd always been interested in. I'd been a three-year staffer on my high school newspaper (where there was actual competition to get on staff), and I'd been the sports and managing editor. I idolized my adviser there; he was grizzled veteran. He had set up a system where he didn't have to do all that much because he'd built a culture of journalistic know-how that was passed down by the editors.

I then went to college and wrote for U.C. Davis' student newspaper, The California Aggie, for three years. I also took journalism classes. I was, beyond a doubt, the most qualified teacher on campus to teach the journalism class at CP. I was also the only one who actually wanted the job. Neither of these things has changed in the past four years.

I asked for and was immediately awarded the position by the grateful first-year Principal. Before I go further, I'd like to clarify that I think she is a decent principal in general. I just have this one giant issue with her because I believe she short-sightedly chose her own self interests over those of the school and the kids. Someday, perhaps I'll forgive her for that. It hasn't happened yet, mostly because she hasn't apologized.

I started the year hoping to re-create the culture of my high school paper but quickly realized it was impossible. At Campolindo, students had to apply, submit writing samples, and interview if they wanted the honor of toiling for La Puma (yeah, that's the real name). The Claw, like most of College Park's electives, was a dumping ground for underclassmen. Freshmen and sophomores were thrown into the class with absolutely no skill or desire for journalism. The first day of class, there were something like 45 kids (the contract max is 37). I asked who had no interest in being there, took down the names, and turned them into a friendly secretary for removal.

Then I assessed my talent. I had perhaps seven or eight experienced staffers from the year before, including two or three editors. I also had a few upperclassmen whom I knew to be quality writers. In general, though, I had a lot of dead weight. I felt like Manager Lou Brown at the beginning of Major League.

Since I didn't really know any of them, I conducted interviews for editorships, giving weight to experience and seniority. I chose a senior named Robby Sutherland as editor-in-chief, not because he seemed to know what he was doing (the kid still confuses "your" and "you're"), but because he seemed to get what I wanted to do with the paper, and I sensed a connection. I knew I could yell at him and push him, and he wouldn't break. Well, unless Nip/Tuck were on, and then he would tune me out.

The biggest problem from the get-go was changing the culture. The former adviser had been in charge of the paper for years, and she pretty much ran the show. She took most of the photos, she wrote the headlines and captions, and she laid the paper out on the computer. She was not just the editor-in-chief, she was pretty much the editor of everything. Not only did I not possess the computer skills to do all that, I wanted it to be the kids doing the work. I hoped to re-create the system that had worked so well in high school, with the teens taking responsibility for making sure their newspaper was something they could be proud of, all the while training new staffers and passing that attitude down to them. I really think we could've gotten there. But I never got the chance.

The other huge shift in culture was getting across that the class wasn't "Newspaper." The class was journalism. Since I'd first started at CP, the paper had come out on time, looked reasonably good (although replete with its share of errors), but it was incredibly milquetoast. I can't remember one time it stirred controversy or even captured the school's attention. It covered all the usual events: Homecoming, football games, Prom, fundraisers, school plays, etc. It was journalism by the barest minimum standards. It was just there.

On the first day, I told the class that business as usual was over. We were going to stir the hornets' nest. We were going to report the truth, even if it made people (including school officials) uncomfortable. Actually, we were going to do it especially if it made them uncomfortable. I made them a promise: As long as we were practicing good journalism, I would have their backs. I wouldn't allow anyone to tame the content of the paper as long as I was in charge. I would fight for them.

I kept my promise. It produced unequivocally the best newspaper of the 11 years I've been at College Park.

It also cost me the job.

To be continued...


Kaboom32 said...

I'm looking forward to the rest of this story. I kinda want to write my story of my time as yearbook adviser at Concord High, but the ending is still too bitter a taste in my mouth. I have a feeling it shares a line or two of the tale you are weaving.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

At the risk of stroking your already overly-inflamed ego, I will attest that it is no exaggeration that the paper was its best under your leadership - at least, in the nine years that I've been at CP.

megan said...

I looked forward to "Nolan's Rants" and I always read that section first. I'm glad that I still have access to your tirades in some form. It will be interesting to read the rest of this story, especially since I'm familiar with the key players!

Sarah said...

When I attended CPHS The Claw was nothing more than extra litter in our hallways. After leaving and moving on to another school, my family started sending me copies of Robby's articles and talking about Nolan's Rants. They were all so proud of Robby and his writing skills which exceeded most of the adult's abilities in our Sutherland Clan.

I finally was able to read a full paper with captions, commentary, and articles that made me so grateful to see that the Journalism class had not only been learning, but thinking. After reading one of your rants I grew a bit more sad. It was one I believe on the mediocrity of movies (or something like that) with insulting and insinuating nuances. Nolan's stirring the pot and that doesn't work well with administration and the PTA. I was hoping you'd at least get 5 years but to be honest I was happy with the thought of you teaching my cousin until his senior year. Selfish, but entirely true. You encouraged Robby and pushed him, which was refreshing to see my little cousin blossom from a shy individual to one who questioned, argued, and thought and could compete with the big boys in intellect and verbal prowess. I don't know if you affected all of your students the way I saw in my cousin, but if you even made a difference in one you should still be leading the class.

It came as no shock to me when you were asked to resign- I look forward to hearing the full story- and I listened to Robby rant and our family react to the news. My family (people of many words, but little action) were livid that the man who inspired and went against the grain was to be let go for doing just that.

Thanks anyway for the time you spent (and spend) to help Robby grow. The idealistic part of me wishes you were still teaching that class, changing limits, and giving the finger to the admin., but alas, it is not so. I would happily vouch for your capabilities in the change I saw in Robby and the change being one of your students I felt in myself.

All that ego boosting stuff aside, you are a mean, filthy, hippie, liberal.

There, I think that evened things up.

Nolan said...

Sarah- Thanks, mostly. I don't remember writing any columns on the mediocrity of movies, although I did do one campaigning for "Brokeback Mountain" to win best picture. I'll have to go back and check.

I'll go into more detail on this aspect tonight, but the administration never challenged or expressed concern with anything I personally wrote. It was all student-generated stuff. Oh, and I never heard one negative thing from parents, PTA or otherwise.

Oh, and I'm sure Robby would've been fine on his own, but thanks. As I wrote, he had all that stuff in him, he just needed the right situation to bring it out.

Chelsey Clay said...

I'm glad that I was able to partake in your CP paper-ruling experience and that I was one of the upperclassmen that you knew had freaking AMAZING writing skills (seeing as I was the entertainment editor). I was wondering about the paper the other day- what's up with it? Does it still suck?

Teddy Bear (J.Shea) said...

Being in journo with you as the advisor was awesome. I won't ever forget trying to get as many letters written to the district as I could to get you back. I definitely had some good times in your class. And as someone who was a member of The Claw for all four years, it was definitely best under your advising. I'm ready for part two now get it on!