Occasionally, I procrastinate and avoid. (After writing the previous sentence, for example, I took a three week pause to reflect on where I wanted to take this story.) This was the case in the fall of 2006, my junior year at Winnacunnet High School, when my parents — my Dad especially — wanted me to join the staff of the Winnachronicle, the school newspaper. I had some excuse as to why I hadn't joined yet, but it wasn't a good one, and Dad knew it. He told me to make it happen.
I visited Mrs. Downer, the paper's fast talking and faster-thinking faculty advisor, and pleaded with her to let me take the class, promising that I'd help out wherever I was needed. That's just an expression, though. If she had asked me to mop the floors or wipe the sweat from the editors' brows or cover the drama club, I would've passed. Fortunately, she acquiesced, and I joined the staff during the second trimester.
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Here's an excerpt from an email I sent to Dad, December 7, 2006, updating him on life back home while he was away on business in Hong Kong:
my new trimester started monday, i'm doing winnachronicle and it's fun..i have a couple articles due monday I think.
My correspondence, radiating with energy and determination, no doubt allayed all of Dad's worries that I wasn't taking the bull by its horns.
Before going any further, I should note that the Winnachronicle wasn't my first foray into the world of journalism. I also wrote for the Academy Times, my middle school paper. Perhaps you've heard of it. The most memorable thing I produced there came in December 2003, a couple months after the Red Sox fell (again) to the Yankees, extending their World Series drought to 86 years, of which I had suffered for 2.
In the piece, I argued that because of New York's pitching losses that winter — Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, and David Wells — and Boston's additions — Curt Schilling, Keith Foulke — that the Red Sox were going to beat the Yankees and win the World Series in 2004. I would've taken an undignified victory lap in the pages of the Academy Times a year later, but I had moved on to high school by that point, and that sort of thing was beneath me.
But see, even that wasn't my first go-round in journalism, and I do want to make sure you have the full picture here. When I was eleven, my cousin Julie and I wrote and published a satirical newspaper about our family that we distributed at our annual Fourth of July party. The Demers Herald ran for a few years and featured articles like, "Family Secret a Big Letdown" and "8 Reasons Not to Touch Dave's New Car." To this day, it's some of the most fun I've ever had writing. Nothing like skewering your loving family in print.
Anyway, back to junior year at the Winnachronicle. I wish I could say that I used my press pass to pick a fight with the administration or uncover some sort of conspiracy in the math department, but in reality, I turned in some forgettable stories and the year simply moved by. As summer break approached, and with the senior class about to graduate, it was time for Mrs. Downer to pick the editors for next year.
There was a kid who sat next to me those couple of trimesters — let's call him Jake — who I got along with pretty well. We worked on similar stories, shared some interests, and would often joke around in class. Jake expressed his desire to be the sports editor to Mrs. Downer. So did I. Naturally, the fact that Jake wanted it made me want it that much more. That I hadn't yet distinguished myself during my brief Winnachronicle career was immaterial.
Jake and I both vowed to quit if we didn't get the sports editor position. I probably wouldn't have, but it was more fun to say I would. After some deliberation, Mrs. Downer picked me. Jake quit. And I don’t think I ever saw him again. (Which sounds melodramatic, but remember — when you don’t have any classes with someone, and you’re not out-of-school friends, they may as well not exist.)
Summer 2007 burned bright and fast. Senior year arrived. I sat in the same spot as I did the previous year, because, well, I don't like change. With Jake gone, the seat beside me was empty. But at some point during the first week of class, a curly-haired girl sat there. She was the new arts and entertainment editor. We had some mutual friends and had had small conversations before, but she somehow seemed different this year. Her name was Isabelle.
As fall crept by, it became clear that Isabelle was good at getting her work done, and I was good at talking to Isabelle. Sometimes I'd have to stay after school with other editors and staffers to finish layout for the sports section — Isabelle, having already completed her work, wouldn't be there. I became much more productive on those afternoons.
At some point, Isabelle dubbed the area of the classroom that we sat in the "Fun Corner" because of how much we goofed around and enjoyed our time there. I'm sure that endeared us to everyone else in the room. More than once, Mrs. Downer said, "You guys are going to get married some day. Just be sure to invite me to the wedding." We both rolled our eyes, but I secretly loved it.
While Isabelle had become my primary focus at the Winnachronicle, I did, technically, have a new responsibility as the sports editor of the paper. Worse still, I had campaigned for it. And then there was this: I didn't like writing about high school sports. Nor did I go to many of the games, aside from an occasional rivalry weekend or playoff battle or that time that one kid said he was going to go streaking. Now, I look back and imagine all the journalistic angles in, all the different stories I could've told within the realm of Winnacunnet High School sports . . . but back then, I would file what I needed to, and that was about it. I wish I’d done it differently.
Instead, I twisted the editorship into something that more closely resembled what I wanted: a sports column in the Boston Globe. In my defense, it was a banner year for the hometown teams. The Celtics had just traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and were on their way to a title. The Sox were on the verge of winning their 2nd in 4 years. The Patriots were stomping their way to an undefeated regular season. Even the Bruins would make a playoff run.
I would usually delegate the stories about school sports — you know, the reason our paper’s sports section existed — but one afternoon, Mrs. Downer told me to write a column about the girls basketball team. They were just getting started on a legendary run (about to win their second of what would eventually be five straight state championships, with a 77-game win streak somewhere in the middle) and deserved more coverage.
The assignment was unavoidable, the blinking cursor unrelenting. I can't remember what specifically inspired me, but there may have been a person or two on the (less successful) boys basketball team who I didn't get along with. Seeing a two birds sort of opportunity, I began writing. In the column, I praised the girls' discipline, passing, selflessness, and defense — and suggested the boys could learn something from how the girls approached the game.
We ran the story. The feedback was instant. Friends, other students (mostly girls), and teachers complimented me on the assignment. ("You captured them so well!") My parents heard from other parents. As someone who relishes a bit of praise (I once took an online quiz that said my love language is "Words of Affirmation"), this was all great. But Dad pulled me aside soon after reading the piece. "It's a good column,” he said. “But you don't really go to the games." Nowhere in the story do I claim to, I told him.
While I was doing . . . whatever I was doing, Isabelle was actually practicing good journalism. And our paper was known for it! For a student newspaper, the Winnachronicle has an interesting past (there was the infamous sex edition of 2007) , and has on occasion been recognized as one of the best in New England. Isabelle did some provocative stories of her own and had a couple interviews published in the Hampton Union, too.
Sometime that spring, the entire staff — or at least all the editors — spent a Saturday morning working on a particularly tricky edition of the paper. Isabelle brought her eight-year-old sister, Jenni. She mostly kept to herself while her older sister worked, but at one point, after Isabelle stood up to go elsewhere for a minute, Jenni boldly said to me, "You like my sister, don't you?" I said nope, you have it all wrong, we’re just friends, and lied right to an 8 year-old's face.
We graduated in June, and Isabelle and I started dating midway through college. (That’s another story, as they say.) When we got engaged in 2017, almost a decade after starting our senior year at the paper, we asked Mrs. Downer to not only attend our wedding, but to officiate it, too. Despite an illness, she did.
We couldn't have asked for a better officiant. And it was a beautiful day, exactly the one we’d hoped for. But Mrs. Downer — Carol, as she asked us to call her by that point — would pass a few months later. We treasured our time with her, and consider ourselves profoundly lucky to have found ourselves in her warm, always lively classroom.
Recounting all of this, I can’t help but think: What if Isabelle sat a few desks away? What if Mrs. Downer had named Jake the sports editor? What if Dad didn't nudge me to join the paper? I don't know. But she didn't, she didn't, and he did.
Thanks for reading! This is the fifth of five personal essays I set out to write in the last few months. I’m not sure what’s next. But if you liked this one, please subscribe below, and you’ll receive them in your inbox.
How appropriate..the FUN corner!! Lol..