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On the other side of the questions

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Sometimes we get a chance to answer questions as well as ask -- and it can provide wonderful enlightenment.

By Steve Doyle

During the past couple of weeks, I have found myself standing before several of you talking about what we do and how we try to do it.
And, as I tell any group to which I speak, I make my living by typing, not talking. That was a decision I made in college, when I realized that my flat Kentucky twang and wild blonde hair did not translate smoothly on television, thus ending my dream of being the next Cawood Ledford – with hair – which was after I realized pro sports were out, too.
Yet, from time to time I stand up in a public forum and speak words that never seem as cute when I deliver them as they had when I typed them (thankfully, few people read this stuff aloud – I  hope).
Whether there are 400 or 4 in the audience, foes or family, I always get a little nervous.
So it was with different degrees of trepidation that I addressed the Shelbyville Rotary Club, the Leadership Shelby Class of 2012 and a group of seventh-graders in Rebecca Holtzworth’s class at East Middle School.
Each really was a fun experience, and those who endured my stumbling stammers were kind. No one threw tomatoes, and no one asked any sort of question that called for an embarrassing answer, though I have confirmed I’m not smarter than a seventh-grader.
Yet, each of them was a unique experience that left me as much listener as speaker in the exchanges of perspectives and information.
You can imagine my reception from the Rotarians, an august group of veteran business people who do their thing once a week. They have a routine, and they have it down. They want to know the black and white and a little bit of the gray, such as what part of the paper generates the most comments (answer: letters).
Their hardest question: Why do you seem to favor Collins High School in your sports coverage? Yeah, heard that one before. That’s a pitch I could handle. We love everyone equally.
The leadership class, a much more diverse group based on careers and interests, asked questions that go to the ethical heart of what we do, such as how we deal with protecting children, how we report details in stories and what is the true meaning of “off the record.”
(That last one always requires a lengthy definition, because not everyone understands that when you talk to a reporter you are on the record unless you set the ground rules before you start. Off the record means that a reporter can’t even take notes. Once you’ve started talking openly, I always explain, you can’t take it back.)
But the best of the questioners were those early teenagers in the class at East Middle – or maybe I just felt more at home among juveniles.
I was lured there by a letter I had received a few weeks ago from one of the students who took me to stern task for suggesting that I was off my old rocker for writing that I didn’t like young people being so stained by the tattoo culture.
The class, I learned, had studied my column as a group, that each student had written a response, and that this one young man felt so passionate that he asked his teacher to help him get his thoughts to me. She did, and when I E-mailed to inquire about the letter, I agreed to speak to the class sometime soon.
That was Friday morning – their final reprieve before the rigors of KPREP testing and the vigors of a do-nothing-last-week-of-school – and, yes, I was a bit nervous as I sat on my stool in front of more than two dozen pairs of quiet and probing eyes.
With people my age, I typically know what to expect. This could have gotten embarrassing really, really quickly. But it didn’t.
Even more so than the two groups of adults, these kids asked wonderful, probing and personal questions.
Some of them were scripted – they have a very prepared teacher – but many were spontaneous. They were curious, they were informed, and – much to the wondering eyes as they teared – they were readers of the newspaper.
Almost every little angelic one of them said he or she liked to read the paper without anyone requiring that. They wanted to be informed. They enjoyed reading.
And their curiosity was far more than this cat could handle.
They wanted to know about the paper, of course, but, moreover, about what I liked to read, what I liked to write, how these words are assembled each week. They wanted to know the full story, not just the headline, bless their little cherubic hearts.
I have spoken to many classes, from elementary schools through colleges – some on career days, some as instructive moments – to groups of all sizes. I’ve seen kids fall asleep, pout, keep their heads down and rouse only to ask what I considered to be rude, immaterial questions.
Never have I seen a class more enlightened, engaged and inspired than the group at EMS.
And I always will remember what one girl asked, something that no one ever has asked, as far as I could recall:
“If you had it to do all over again, would you become a journalist?”
I paused for a bit, fidgeted I’m sure, trying to form an answer that would be meaningful to the young and the cool.
Yes, I said, I would, because I think this was what I was ordained to be, what my life experiences prepared for me and, as I told them, really the only thing I know how to do.
There were some things I would do differently, for sure.
But, yes, I would become a journalist.
At least now that I know I couldn’t play center field for the Braves.