Writing and the envied generation


With apologies to science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein, I felt like the title character of his book Stranger in a Strange Land.

The scene was a classroom at Woodland Elementary School in Perrysburg. Where a blackboard should've been was instead a SMARTboard. It was the first time I had ever seen one. It is like a giant computer screen.

A fourth-grader was tapping on it to bring up a series of questions. He made me feel as though he and the board were smarter than I am.

It was my own fault that I was there. In December, I got a collection of letters from the fourth-grade class. The teacher, Lynn Cherry, said in a cover letter that her pupils were studying the fiscal problems of the U.S. Postal Service. Some of the students wrote their thoughts as letters to the editor with the hope of being published in The Blade.

Right around this time, my boss, Blade Editor David Kushma, was preparing his year-end op-ed column about how we encourage letters to the editor. However, we don't run letters submitted as a school project.

I phoned Ms. Cherry to thank her, and explained why the letters wouldn't be published. But because I live close to the school, I offered to stop by someday and talk to the class.

That day came this month. There I was, facing 28 or so fresh faces. I was offered a seat in a rocking chair beside the SMARTboard -- talk about a juxtaposition of young and old. I chose to stand.

Did they ever have questions. That's where the SMARTboard came in. A student tapped on a symbol on the screen, and up came a question that was read aloud by the classmate who had thought of it in advance. These kids were prepared.

I was a bit nervous. It's been a lot of years since my own two sons were in elementary school. I felt strange.

Some of the questions were disarmingly simple. "How to you go about editing?" one of the questions went. My first thought was: How do you explain breathing, or hitting a baseball?

But these kids deserved a reasoned answer. I told them that whatever I read on the job, I do so as though I was not associated with the newspaper. A reader, we call the customer.

If I can't understand what a letter writer is trying to say, neither would the customer. Either through research, a knowledge of the language, or a conversation with the writer, I edit the letter to get the point across.

Another simple question: "Who was your inspiration?" That left me speechless. I felt guilty because no one came to mind.

I've had a lot of good teachers in school and good bosses in close to 40 years in journalism, but no one person stands out. I told the students that writing was something I loved to do, beginning when I was their age.

Speaking of age, the message I wanted to convey was that I envied them -- not their youth, but their future. These youths were 10 years old.

Ten years ago, there was no Twitter. No Facebook. But they are growing up with these means of communication as commonplace.

The envy comes from my wondering about what exciting new ways of conveying ideas to one another are beyond the horizon for them -- ways that are in the realm of science fiction now, but by the time they are adults will become fact.

But no matter how the message is conveyed, from the days when people chipped symbols into rocks, used quills and ink, pecked away at typewriters, or thumbed over a phone keyboard, I told them, they still have to know how to write. They have to know how to get their point across clearly, concisely, and interestingly. Not everyone can do that, which is why there are people like me and my colleagues.

I'm glad I went. I left feeling less of a stranger.

Dennis Bova is a copy editor for The Blade's Pages of Opinion.

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