My class has started a new unit on journalism. I was really excited to start, since some of my fondest memories from high school connect to my work with our high school newspaper. I told my class that I came within ten minutes of becoming a newspaper reporter instead of a teacher. Mostly, it was a way of saying that I really love newspapers and news writing, but it got me thinking about that time.
I was less than a year out of college. I’d spent the first 6 months as a graduate doing pretty menial work as a document coder for a law firm. Not exciting work. Around January, I moved back to my old college town to be nearer to my girlfriend who was still at school. I started looking for work, and actually got two interviews in a short amount of time. One was at a place called The Reading Lab, where they did mostly remedial reading work. I got a tour from the woman who owned the business with her husband. She was a dynamo, and the place buzzed with energy. I had a pretty good interview and got to work with some of the kids. She said she’d call me after she discussed the candidates with her husband.
That same day (actually evening), I had a different sort of interview with the Poughkeepsie Journal. They had an opening in their sports department. The man who interviewed me was gruff. He was the stereotypical newspaper man, similar in manner and shape to Lou Grant, the boss in Mary Tyler Moore’s newsroom. We talked sports. We talked about my experience. He was not impressed by the high school newspaper years, even when I mentioned that we had won national awards. Still, he showed me around. Showed me the page I’d be responsible for if I got the job. It was called the agate page, made up of mostly box scores, schedules, standings, and racing forms. I didn’t see a whole lot of writing involved in the job, but hey, everyone always said that you start at the bottom and work your way up. He handed me a piece of paper with some basic facts on it, set me up at a typewriter, and said, “You have 30 minutes to write me a story.”
Being recently out of college, this actually didn’t bother me that much. I was used to taking a little bit of knowledge and making it sound like more. I wrote my story, handed it to him, thanked him for his time, and headed home. It had been a long day.
The next morning, I got a call from The Reading Lab. Carole, the woman who had interviewed me, said that they wanted to offer me the job. She said that since I had very little experience (meaning none, unless you counted the ten minutes from the previous day), she’d be starting me at their base pay, $3.05 per hour. I asked her how many hours I was likely to work. She said that it varied, but that between their two locations, she could probably assure me of 30 hours a week. Since my rent was $150 a month, I figured that $90 a week was pretty good pay. I told her I’d take the job. I wasn’t much of a negotiator.
Ten minutes later the phone rang again. It was Lou Grant. “So, we really liked what you wrote. That was pretty funny how you led with the Yogi Berra quote. Nice touch.”
“Thanks. I’m a big fan.”
“Well, we’re prepared to offer you the job. You’re our new agate page editor. When can you start?”
“Umm. Thank you. That’s really great, but I just accepted another job.”
“What?! Jesus, you were just in our newsroom last night. When did you accept a job?”
“Umm. About ten minutes ago. ”
“Who with? Another paper? We’re the biggest one around here.”
“No, it’s with The Reading Lab, they’re sort of a tutoring place.”
“What the $%^$? A tutoring place? It’s 8:30. You couldn’t wait? Why didn’t you just call us? I’m sure we’d beat what they’re paying.”
It’s a weird thing, when one moment you’re unemployed, and the next moment an employer’s berating you because you didn’t give them a chance to match another employer’s offer. I apologized for my negotiating incompetence. Lou hung up, clearly disgusted by my foolishness.
I worked at the Reading Lab for a year before heading back to school to get my teaching certification. Before I left, I had received several raises. My pay was up to $3.55 an hour. I found out that money wasn’t all that important to me. I also found that I liked working with kids.
Every once in a while, I wonder where the agate page would have taken me. I think, though, that creating a newspaper with fifth graders might be the best of two worlds.