Friday, January 27, 2006

I shouldn't be writing this post. That's true of pretty much anything done during work hours that's not work, of course, but also, writing something about any job in a semi-public place like this is generally a bad idea. But, hell with it - it's just my opinion, it's not a very big secret, and there's only person who I expect would be negatively affected by this post and that person is singularly unlikely to stumble on it.

My least favorite part of this job by far is the writing. Sounds odd, I know, considering my background and interests and stuff. Sometimes I wonder if the problem is just a general lack of motivation. But no, when I consider what has been the hardest part of specific tasks or assignments, that can't be the whole story.

Part of my job is writing profiles of students who have improved thanks to the foundation, or interesting innovations begun under our banner, or events and gatherings we lead or take part in. Writing about this stuff sounds like reporting, but it's not. It's promotion. And while there's a place for that, and I think I could really enjoy practicing it in some ways, what I do here does not include those ways.

There have been lots of little things, but two specific instances come to mind. A month or two ago, I wrote a success story about a student. It was appropriate - we work with kids who wouldn't have gone to college otherwise, not due to a lack of ability but merely due to lack of interest or awareness or expectations, and Mr. A here was a sophomore in college and already an R.A. and had several other accomplishments to his name too. So I got started with the story and it was shaping up well and I was getting glowing praise for him from educators, and glowing praise for our foundation from him. Downright inspiring. But eventually I asked for details about his time in high school. Apparently he was on his high school's football and baseball teams. Not only was he on the teams, he was captain in his senior year. And while that often doesn't translate into college ability or performance, of course, the "former delinquent who sees the light" story I had seen in my head just wilted and withered. This is our idea of a success story? We're taking kids who already have leadership ability and organizational skills and self-discipline and convincing them to take the SATs more seriously? How am I supposed to make an interesting article out of that?

And around the beginning of last week, a story I wrote went up on our Web site. Rather than being about one student, it was how all the students we had been working with at a certain school had shown remarkable improvement. As I wrote it, the improvements I had been told about looked less remarkable, but even so, the changes were impressive. Casual hyperbole might turn "every student's grades increased" into "every student was failing a year ago and now they're all getting As," but even the former statement is worth writing about. So that's what I did. But a day or two after it went up on our Web site, I heard through the grapevine that the teacher I had relied on for most of my info had complaints about mistakes or inaccuracies. I got in touch with her, and it turned out that there four problems. Two of them were innocent mistakes - an adjective not changed to fit the context of a later version, and a quote which I guess must have been heard wrong. The other two were an expectation written up as fact, and a vague part completed in a way that made us look heroic. Of those errors, how many were mine? One. The misquote. The other innocent mistake and the unjustified self-promotions were added after the last time I saw my story.

Let me be clear here: the problem is not the foundation. We do good work. I work from the central office so I never see it in person, but we've changed a lot of lives. The particular person I was asked to write about might not have had such a dramatic turnaround, but other students really have. And it's at least partly my fault that I didn't check the story one last time before it went to the Web site. And of course, I shouldn't complain about having a full-time job with good pay. But this kind of writing is just deadening. I'm not reporting, I'm not creating something original, and I'm not offering opinion. I'm just taking a different event or person in each story and hammering it into the prefab mold of "We did this, isn't that great?"

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