Within the first month of joining my high school’s newspaper, I had made it on the wall. Or rather, my idea for the Bullseye — Opinion’s spread that discussed the hottest trends — had.
“Bill Clinton talked to a chair?” was what I had scribbled onto the brainstorming sheet.
I was referencing actor Clint Eastwood’s iconic speech in 2012 when he talked to an empty chair as if then-President Obama were sitting in it, but at the time knew nothing about the speech’s contents or apparently, who said it (I am just now realizing as I write this piece that Bill Clinton was, in fact, not the one who talked to a chair).
The Opinion editor thought it was the funniest thing she had ever seen, and so she slapped it up on the wall and told me I was hilarious. She was sweet, taking the time to talk to me and make me feel welcome on staff, which at the time was intimidating and very serious.
Our newspaper was recovering from a major scandal just a few years back when all the editors of the staff quit in protest against the school administration’s requests for them to remove controversial articles and give the names of their anonymous sources after a series of issues covering teenage sex, drug use, drinking and more. The Chicago Tribune even covered the story and wrote an editorial about our school’s administration and its “censorship.”
Because of the scandal, the new editors were trying to rebuild the newspaper to the Pacemaker-winning publication it had once been. They were on the high alert, and though the principal no longer previewed articles, it was a tense time.
My class of staffers was the most removed from the scandal, having been in middle school when it all happened. But we could feel the rigidity of the new newspaper, and while we were trying to learn AP style and InDesign, we were also realizing the extent of the damage that had occurred and the tedium of rebuilding a newspaper’s reputation.
I had entered the journalism world dubious from the start. I took the introductory journalism class solely because there wasn’t a creative writing class offered for freshmen, and I wanted to write. It had always been my passion, and English had always been my favorite subject. Journalism had seemed alright, so after freshman year, I signed up for the newspaper class, thinking it could be a way for me to further my interest.
Yet somewhere along the way, I began to loathe writing and newspapers. There were good times—progressive dinners, a trip to San Antonio and many inside jokes. But the anxiety and self-doubt that came from writing for the newspaper were too much. Our newspaper was a highly competitive place, and as someone who had little experience writing articles and the inability to differentiate Bill Clinton from Clint Eastwood, I began to question myself. Why didn’t I get a good piece to write? Why am I not allowed to write an editorial yet? Why am I not writing about something I really want to write about?
With each year of high school, the politics and competition among staffers increased, and we got yet another new adviser. I worked tirelessly to improve my writing skills because I was used to being a standout writer, and I wanted to continue to stand out. By the end of senior year, I was the co-managing editor of production and had finally written editorials and a front-page article, but it wasn’t enough. I felt more irritation than pride for what I had accomplished, and underappreciated by the paper I had poured so many hours into. Though many people would acknowledge the fantastic job we were doing, I fixated on all the criticism the paper received and the errors we made. So, with a fair amount of teen angst, I decided I’d never do journalism again after high school.
My English classes weren’t much better, as they came with the rigor of preparing for the AP exam. I had stellar English teachers, but they couldn’t make up for the rigidly structured AP essay requirements we had to meet. Though my teachers tried hard to inspire us and make us worry less about APs and our grades, it still felt like writing became “insert quote here” or “insert argument here.” Yes, my writing improved dramatically, but I resented the mechanical nature of our work and the pressure I put on myself. If that was what majoring in journalism or English looked like, then I wanted to do neither.
When I came to the University of Michigan, I stayed away from The Daily and English classes. I was bitter about my history with newspapers, and worried college would be worse than high school. I knew that secretly, I still loved writing, but I hid that away, telling myself that people don’t really get to write what they truly want to write because of grades, expectations and other limitations. Likewise, pursuing creative writing or an English major seemed unrealistic for a person like me, who had always got caught up in the competition. No, I thought I’d be better off doing something safer.
Of course, I had to meet the First-Year Writing Requirement. I believed I was signed up for a class on satire, but in a stereotypical freshman move, I registered for the wrong section. Two minutes before class I shakily checked the course guide and learned I was instead registered for the topic, “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?” I stayed in the class, partly because I didn’t know how to switch to another one, but also because it was too ironically perfect to pass up on. Who was I and what was I doing in that class?
It was nothing like the other English classes I had taken, but I still told myself I couldn’t see English as my future major. I took a communications class, and then a creative writing class sophomore year thinking I would apply for the Organizational Studies major and maybe pursue the Creative Writing minor since it was far enough removed from pure English.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about English. Second semester, I took English 298 on the tiniest off-chance that I would like it and awaited the decision from Organizational Studies. I ended up obsessively reading and re-reading James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and revering over my professor’s eloquent and emotional speeches in class. Though he had taught many of the texts at least six times, he spoke like it was the first time he had ever encountered them, and I was enamored. A few weeks before the Organizational Studies decisions were to be announced, I found myself daydreaming in English, thinking that maybe in that gloomy, windowless room in the basement of Angell Hall, I had finally found the place I was supposed to be all along.
One rejection from Organizational Studies later and I was back where I started so many years ago — with an unthinkably tremendous love for words on a page.
Finally, I declared English, joined Daily Arts and later got another writing job.
One night after dinner last semester, my roommate carefully cut up an orange and put the slices in one of our multi-colored plastic bowls while I washed my dishes. I was hit with a pang of familiarity; my dad eats an orange every day after dinner, peeling it with precision while my mom does the dishes, and my sister and I lean against the counter, talking to them.
It felt slightly odd to watch her do something I had seen for my entire life, but it also felt comforting — like I was returning home, like nothing had changed. No matter what or where I was, nobody could take away the soothing sensation of the experience. I’ve since recognized it’s the same feeling I get every time I open up a new Word document and start writing again.
I’d be nowhere without my long-winded path to my major and rekindled passion for journalism and creative writing. Likewise, I’m grateful for the teachers, professors, students and friends who have influenced me — whether positively or negatively — and of course, for my family and their constant encouragement. It’s all taught me to push past the self-doubt because I’m incredibly lucky to do what I’ve always loved.
And no, in case you missed it earlier, Bill Clinton did not talk to a chair.