The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

December 7, 2013

Teaching the hard lessons is hard on the teacher

From The Back Porch column

By Nerissa Young

— “Eyes wide open,” I said in a low voice to one of my students just before I started class.

She had come to my office earlier in the semester and told me something that I couldn't stop thinking — or worrying — about.

So I had worried for some weeks now about whether to say what I thought I should or keep my mouth shut.

You guessed it — I said it. Keeping my mouth shut has never been one of my strong suits.

Many of our students come from small Midwestern or Appalachian towns.

They are authentic and sincere and probably a little naïve.

I know I’m naïve, and I thank God every day. Being worldly carries a high price.

When she told me her career goal was to be a war photojournalist, I was a bit taken aback.

But when she said a brother is serving in the Navy, I understood.

She explained that covering war would be her way of serving, of giving back.

She understands the calling that journalists have to tell the stories of others and the power those stories have to make a difference.

Images are just as powerful, if sometimes not more so, than words.

She left my office but not my thoughts.

Without any children of my own, I tend to mother my students a little more than I should.

It causes sleepless nights.

Should I tell her what I know about female journalists who work in war zones?

The photojournalism major is not housed in the journalism school. Would they tell her what she should know?

I’ve always believed my job as teacher and adviser is to tell students the truth. They are adults; it’s a show of disrespect to patronize them by not telling them the truth.

Sometimes what I have to say hurts to hear, but better to be uncomfortable now than worse off later.

So I got to class a few minutes early, wiggled my index finger at her and invited her to the front of the room.

I told her that I listened to a war correspondent at a journalism convention who openly admitted she didn’t keep count of the number of times she had been raped on the job.

She said she didn’t even think about it any more because that wasn’t important. What was important was the people’s stories, and she would keep telling them.

“I’m not telling you to give up your dream,” I said to my student. “I admire the heck out of you, but you need to know what can happen. I didn’t know whether they told you that, but I thought I should.”

I reminded her of the sexual assault of CBS correspondent Lara Logan, and she nodded.

“Eyes wide open,” I said and abruptly ended the conversation.

Maybe my method lacked finesse, but my motive was genuine.

In this instance and others like it, I’d darn sure rather answer for a sin of commission because I tried to do the right thing than a sin of omission because I didn’t do anything.

I hope she understands that.

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist.


© 2013 by Nerissa Young