Writing Challenge Day One: My Most Influential Teacher

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For the next 14 days, I’m participating in a writing challenge by author Patricia Charpentier, author of the book, Eating an Elephant: Writing Your Life One Bite at a Time. Each day Patricia is posting a prompt and encouraging participants to set a timer for 10 minutes and go for it. More than 250 people worldwide are participating from most of the United States and several foreign countries.

Interested? It’s not too late to participate. Visit http://www.writingyourlife.org and search the 14-day writing challenge. Join me!

She wasn’t my mama and she never gave me money, but Mama Cash gave me something more valuable: the opportunity to learn how to be a journalist.

My infatuation with writing hit a peak in 1975 an 8th grader when I was chosen to write for my middle school newspaper, the Raa Rampage. Prior to this, I had only written the world’s worst emotional adolescent poetry and a rambling 25-page typed short story. But it was the shorter writing of articles for the Rampage that fueled my internal fire. I remember the red ink on my first story. It made me want to give up but I was determined to not do so.

So, the satisfaction I got from interviewing and writing became perpetually stoked each month the Rampage was published. And then as I high school loomed, I discovered and signed on for a 9th grade elective – journalism.

I loved people, being aware of the latest happenings and writing about them. Journalism class wasn’t like work, it was, dare I say it – FUN?

My high school logo. I was in the 3rd graduating class.

My high school logo. I was in the 3rd graduating class.

During my freshman year, Mrs. Cash taught me the basics of interviewing, crafting editorials and developing into a good communicator. Physically, she appeared more grandmotherly than “teacherly” with her white, styled hair curled upward at the shoulders. Her cotton dresses with collars featured tiny floral prints and generally her teacher-type shoes were more functional and fashionable. I regret it now, but I used to make fun of those shoes. Today I find myself standing in my classroom of middleschoolers towing the same shoe comfort on my feet.

Mama Cash was always professional in how she conducted our class. Our room was wide open, without desks and chairs but filled with 6’ long tables, which ended up serving us well for our editorial planning meetings. It probably should have been an art room. Its 5’ high vertical cabinets burst with reams of paper on which to type and other journalistic supplies such as rubber cement.

Under her direction, I understood her red-inked corrections and clarifications were actually hints or little bridges to betterment. I took them, internalized their teaching points, continued writing and incorporated what Mama Cash taught me.

I don’t remember lots of “sit still and take notes” lessons, but I do remember lots of time to practice what I learned and the way she had laser focus when reading one of my pieces. Because of Mama Cash, I had the confidence to interview sources, take what I had learned and translate it through writing so others could know as well. She was big into honesty and ethics, therefore I trusted her insights and comments.

Once our class had learned various concepts about being responsible journalists, she cut us loose to practice the skills and prove it with the assignments we turned in. I knew she trusted me implicitly when one day she gave me the laminated “yellow pass of power.” It was a permanent pass I could use at any time to leave class for interviews or “journalism business.”

Each year I “re-upped” for journalism and each year, Mama Cash made sure I had new challenges, higher expectations and more responsibilities. In 10th grade, she made me co-editor for our award-winning student newspaper, Trojan Talk.

In 11th and 12th grades, she trusted me to not only do my work but to supervise and encourage my fellow teenage journalists as the paper’s editor.

One of my most fond memories of her is her incessant patience with the crazy ways of me and my classmates. It’s a fact that a primal teenager’s joy is to unearth what irritates an adult and then make sure to do it and watch the response. As I mentioned earlier, our room was an open style with 5’ tall vertical storage cabinets in one area. The pet peeve? Open cabinet doors exposing their internal disarray for all to see. Since confession, they say, is good for the soul, I have to say here and now I knew this about her and I willingly participated in “forgetting” to close those cabinet doors.

And without a word, the next time I returned, the cabinet doors were closed and the area looked respectable once again.

My favorite part of being Mrs. Cash’s student was staying after school and not because I was in trouble. It’s because it was “Paste Up.” That meant staying one day each month until the work of laying out the newspaper’s pages was done to her satisfaction, using rubber cement to glue down the columns of type and photos we’d received from out typesetter and generally having a good time until 7 or 8 p.m. Those were the times of pizza and practicing page design.

Once done, I delivered the layouts to the Tallahassee Greyhound bus station where they were sent to a printer in Ocala. Several days later, printed newspaper arrived – the culmination and result of plans, interviews, writing, editing, proofing, pasting and printing. When word was out on campus that a new issue was out I felt indescribable as I watched my peers and teachers alike read and discuss the issue.

Had Mama Cash not been the patient, quality-requiring teacher she was, I would have pursued my piano playing instead of journalism and I’d be a starving musician today instead of a satisfied writer.

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