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Kennedy ‘starting out . . . again’

By Jack Kennedy
Carl Towley Award Recipient
given Nov. 20, 2004 at the JEA/NSPA convention in Atlanta

Jack Kennedy

It is truly an honor to be named this year’s Carl Towley award winner. Bob Greenman e-mailed two days ago congratulating me, noting that it’s great that someone who is just starting out can receive such prestigious recognition. He’s teasing a guy who’s been advising since 1976, but in so many ways I am just starting out… again. I have been sharing on the JEA listserv some of my adventures working at a brand new high school, with only freshmen and sophomores in the building, starting the newspaper program from scratch. For many members of the LISTSERV nation, seeing another chapter of “South of Denver” causes them to hit delete. For me, it’s therapy.

I’ve occasionally said about long-time experts-you know the type, the Wayne Braslers and H.L. Halls-that they “have forgotten more about advising than I’ll ever know.” In my case, it seems, that saying has evolved into “I’ve forgotten more about advising than I ever knew.”

Let me first be certain to introduce to you a woman I have been partnering with for over 33 years, an honorary Quill & Scroll member, the mother of Lesley, Sara and Phil, three University of Iowa journalism majors who combined in high school for two Quill & Scroll scholarships, two Gold Keys, and four national Write-off awards, and who were part of six Pacemaker newspapers and one Pacemaker yearbook. She is currently editor of the best high school parent newsletter in Colorado, and a gorgeous grandmother of one-month-old Grace Kennedy Olson, the most beautiful baby I have ever seen, well… since Lesley and Sara and Phil. Thanks for your endless support and love, Kathleen.

I also need to thank an amazingly large number of JEA members who have taught me, consoled me, laughed with (and at) me, and who have provided such a strong support system throughout the past 20 plus years. I won’t attempt to name them all, but I am being absolutely sincere when I say that many of my best friends are advisers from all around the country who I literally see twice a year, at conventions, with a few scattered summer workshop moments sprinkled in. Journalism advisers are the best teachers I know, and the best people I know.

I was thinking just the other day that the world is made up of wonderful coincidences. When I was 20 years old, I first heard a recording of my favorite rock opera, “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I played it endlessly and soon had the entire score memorized. I would imagine myself taking the role of Murray Head, the English actor-singer, who sang the part of Judas, the betrayer of Christ. But what a fascinating betrayer! Ah, well. Just another of those dreams of youth, never to be. Who would have guessed that 34 years later I would be given the opportunity to sing the part of Judas in an amazing production of Superstar in Highlands Ranch, Colorado? The ecumenical show, involving several area churches, was a huge hit, with four sell-outs just last weekend. I had fulfilled one of those dreams of youth. It had been a lost cause, a pipe dream, but somehow it happened, and it was very cool. If only the rest of the cast were here, and the 20-piece orchestra… well, maybe I would share a song from the show. That’s not going to happen, but I’m not saying we won’t be singing a bit before this is all over.

So what does Judas have to do with journalism, or with anyone here, for that matter? Well, perhaps you may not know of a more faithful friend of Jesus, a guy named Jude. He was a cousin of Jesus, a man who could cast out devils, who had been at the Last Supper, and who was martyred in Persia about 75 A.D. The problem with Jude, of course, is that people were forever mixing up his name with that of Judas, the betrayer. He became a forgotten apostle. Anyone who prayed to him was thought to be wasting his time. It was a lost cause.

And, wouldn’t you know, St. Jude eventually became the patron saint of desperate situations, of hospitals and hospital workers, and yes, of lost causes.

About four weeks ago I showed my 88 freshmen excerpts from one of my favorite Frank Capra movies: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It was the political season, after all, and I thought we all needed a healthy dose of idealism. In that film, the Jimmy Stewart character quotes his late father as telling him repeatedly that lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for. A little research, by the way, reveals that it was Clarence Darrow, the defense attorney at the Scopes trial, who originated the phrase in real ife. I like that, since Darrow is the man who said things like, “You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man’s freedom. You can only be free if I am free.” And “As long as the world shall last there will be wrongs, and if no man objected and no man rebelled, those wrongs would last forever.” He also said, “When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become President. Now I’m beginning to believe it.” And that will be today’s political comment from me.

So let’s see if I can sum up this string of coincidences, from Judas to St. Jude, to Jimmy Stewart as Senator Jefferson Smith, to Clarence Darrow, to all of us here today. It turns out, my brothers and sisters, that we are all engaged in a lost cause. Education in general, and scholastic journalism in particular, is a noble but lost cause.

We will never produce a perfect newspaper or yearbook or broadcast or website. We will never be able to say our job is done: that everything has been taught. No matter how many times someone proofs the story, there will be one random typo that slips through. Just when an editor has grown in her job to the point where you honestly feel you have an assistant adviser, she graduates.

I have taught students the difference between its and it’s since 1975, though I am sure I have never been entirely successful. There will never be a time I will not be teaching its and it’s, or any of your other favorite homonyms.

No system will ever insure that everyone makes deadline, and the printer will always make at least one mistake (or at least we will always blame the printer for that mistake).

Education is not a destination-it’s a trip (in so many ways). We will never know everything. Someone once told me that in 1700, you could print all human knowledge in one copy of the Sunday Times of London. Today you would need over 100,000 copes of the Times to do the same, and human knowledge is estimated to be doubling each year.

What if we ever did produce a perfect newspaper or yearbook or broadcast? Would that be the sign of the end of all things? Or would we have to start work on the next issue or volume or broadcast? It turns out that perfection isn’t the goal, after all.

Despite our best efforts, schools continue to be frustrating, inefficient, political, bureaucratic, clumsy, under funded, and over tested. Also, funny, silly, brilliant, fulfilling, dynamic and challenging. Frankly, schools are a whirlwind of contradictions and anyone who claims he or she has figured out the perfect way to teach or to learn is flat out foolish.

But we keep showing up, taking little victories when we can, shrugging off the mistakes, inspiring as many young people as possible, with the full understanding that only a small percentage will actually understand what we are up to.

High school is a lost cause. So why aren’t we educators depressed? Because ours is a noble cause: to help young minds develop, to help young people become true thinking citizens, to be one small but significant part of a young man or woman’s life-long educational journey.

High school journalism will always be more about high school than about journalism-but we actually revel in this. Get a bunch of advisers together and what do you hear? Stories of computer disasters. Of run-ins with principals, parents, fellow teachers. Of reporters who don’t seem to understand the word “deadline.” Of deep philosophical discussions late at school. Of trying to explain the bizarre nature of high school relationships to a devastated staff member, when we should have been doing a final edit on his writing. Ever feel like the unofficial counselor for your school?

And still we step into the arena each day and fight the good fight. Remember what Atticus Finch says to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird: “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.”

You and I know the truth, my friends: it’s not really about winning. It’s about working hard, doing your absolute best, sharing your passion.

Perhaps we should all have a small statue of St. Jude in our journalism classrooms. A little help from the patron saint of lost causes couldn’t hurt.

But even knowing St. Jude is watching over me, there are days when I begin to wonder about this whole journalism gig. Times I get a little down. I start thinking that the kids stay the same age, year after year, as I get older and more tired. But then, just when things look darkest, a tune might pop into my head. Something a little mournful, a little silly. Something like the journalism blues. And singing the blues, ironically, can make a person feel better.

I can see that the backup band I asked for has not arrived, but we can still do a little singing, if you will help. I need a rhythm section, and I believe you here can be that rhythm section. Here’s all you have to do (think of the rhythm to “I’m Evil” by Elvis): Da da da, da da. Da da da, da da.

I woke up this morning
Had a deadline on my mind
My hard drive was smokin’
This issue’s in a bind.

Guy at Wal-Mart lost my photos
Principal knocking on my door.
I began to wonder, just what I’m working for
I got them journalism blues, from early morn to late at night
I got them journalism blues, can’t seem to ever get things right.

My adviser’s really steamin’
Reporters feeling down
Ain’t seen my mom since last Tuesday
Yearbook rep’s out of town

Eatin’ last night’s cold pizza
Ain’t feelin very well
Can’t somebody save me from this journalism hell?!
I got them journalism blues, from early morn to late at night
I got them journalism blues, can’t seem to ever get things right.

Thank you, my friends, and keep fighting the fight.

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