For adviser, long journey from journalist to teacher is worth it


Erin Cristales, Adviser

The main thing I remember about my first day in journalism class was how much I didn’t want to be there.

Not only was it my inaugural day as a high school freshman – the upperclassmen’s warm welcome was “Don’t feed the fish” scrawled in black Sharpie on my locker – but I was also brand new to town, having just moved to Texas from Oklahoma following the death of my grandmother. I didn’t know anyone, and my only experience with the school was the disheartening enrollment process the week before. The surprisingly morose counselor plopped a list of electives in front of me; I scanned the courses, and pointed hopefully to Creative Writing. “Full,” she said, shaking her head. Art was full, too. So were my next three choices.

“If you like to write, why don’t you try journalism?” she suggested. I thought she would try to sell me on all the great things about the course, but instead unfurled a Kleenex from her pants pocket, blew her nose, and added, “Not as many people sign up for it.”

In my mind, journalism wasn’t writing. I had just moved from a 3,000-person town, where the local paper was full of ads about garage sales and announcements for the Baptist church. And there was no way, with my frizzy hair and crooked teeth, that I could ever imagine myself on television, even if everyone else greeted the news of my new elective with an overly enthusiastic, “You could be the next Barbara Walters!”

So I was less than thrilled when third period approached, and it was time to enter what I thought would be one of my most despised classes. It didn’t help that the room was full of tables, and I was no social butterfly; I preferred classes where the desks were far apart and the eye contact optional.

Nevertheless, I took a seat across from a scrawny, sandy-haired freshman (who, despite his less-than-stellar discipline record and pack-a-day cigarette habit would become one of my best friends), and waited for the teacher to start class. I figured we would do the same kind of “getting to know you” activities as in all the other classes; introducing ourselves and naming our favorite book or color or food, as if a mutual love of chicken nuggets might magically melt away the withering judgment teenagers employed as their weapon of choice.

Instead, our instructor – a thirtysomething former journalist who had recently transitioned into teaching – picked up a copy of “Moby Dick” and began to read one of Melville’s most Melvillian lines, the kind of structurally intimidating sentence our English teachers encouraged us to emulate in our own writing. Soft groans filled the room.

He closed the book.

“That,” he said, “is not journalism.”

Journalism, he said, is not about how fancy your prose is; it’s about relaying important information in accessible ways, about getting people to talk to you, about holding our society accountable. He talked about the First Amendment and what it guarantees us as journalists and citizens, and what we should expect from the press when we are granted these kinds of incredible freedoms. Better yet, he talked about all of these things with the kind of razor-sharp intellect and humor that made us feel as important and respected as the principles he was discussing.

I was hooked.

For the next four years, I practically lived in that classroom: every spare minute was spent writing and editing stories, designing pages, or practicing for UIL meets. I metamorphosed from a student who was afraid to speak up in class into a journalist who had no problem conducting interviews with everyone from the superintendent to the head cheerleader. By my junior year, I was a state champion in feature and headline writing, and by my senior year, a Tops in Texas winner.

In August 1999, I headed to the University of Texas at Austin on a journalism scholarship (another way journalism changed my life: It helped me become the first person in my family to attend college). My first week on campus, I descended the stairs to the basement that housed The Daily Texan and applied for a spot on the paper’s entertainment staff. When my first review was published, my roommate clipped it from the paper and hung it on our dorm room door; I pretended it was no big deal, but left the review hanging there until my next one was published a few weeks later.

By the time I graduated, I had written more than 100 reviews. Before and after classes, I would head to movie screenings and spend quite literally day and night crafting my take on the latest comedy or action film. Some evenings, I would stay long after the last bus stopped running and spend the night on the entertainment office’s dingy loveseat.

About six months after graduation (and a summer and fall spent wondering if all that work had been for nothing), I finally landed my first professional journalism job. The Killeen Daily Herald was looking for a copy editor/page designer, and luckily, my stint as the Texan’s entertainment editor had prepared me for the role. Even though I was only making $24,000 a year and working most nights and weekends, I loved it. There was something so satisfying about knowing exactly what I wanted to do and taking the first step toward doing it.

What I wanted to do most was work for The Dallas Morning News. One week before my 25th birthday, on the heels of a 10-month stint as lead designer for the Abilene Reporter-News, I was hired as an assistant news editor on the News’ production desk. To me, the small cubicle situated among the other cluttered desks wasn’t just a workspace; it was a materialization of the vision I’d had for myself since freshman year.

I spent a little over five years at the News, handling the design of the Business and Metro sections. I learned from the very best, working shoulder to shoulder with APME and Pulitzer Prize winners, reporters and photographers who had ventured into war zones and natural disasters. Despite three increasingly brutal rounds of layoffs, I felt extraordinarily lucky to work there; while other papers were shuttering their daily coverage, the News stayed committed to its readers and remaining staff.

So I was almost as surprised as my boss when I walked into her office in November 2012 and announced my resignation. While many others had bolted in the wake of the layoffs, accepting jobs as PIOs and Internal Communications Editors, it wasn’t concern over the unstable state of affairs that led to my leaving. Over the past couple of years, I had developed the nagging feeling that it was time to take a new step in my career, similar to the one I had taken as a freshman all those years ago.

It was time to enter the classroom.

I felt happy, excited even, when I announced my resignation. But the two weeks leading up to my actual departure were torturous, similar to the way my friends described their divorces: Sure, it seems like the right move, but how do you imagine your life without the one thing to which you’ve devoted yourself for so long?

For those two weeks, I cried every day and hardly ate; by the time my last day at the paper arrived, I had lost almost 10 pounds. My husband did his best to boost my spirits, assuring me that I would be just as great in the classroom as I was in the newsroom. But I had worked at becoming a journalist since I was 13 years old – how could I expect that a 12-week alternative certification program had prepared me to be a teacher?

Inevitably, it became a matter of sink or swim. My first day of school had arrived and there was no turning back, at least without risk of extreme embarrassment and unemployment. I was greeted with six periods full of expectant 8th grade faces. Since it was mid-semester, and my job was as an English teacher, I didn’t have any introductory activities or Melville to trot out, just a lesson on how to find the main idea of an expository text.

Over the next few months, despite a few mishaps and regrets, I grew to enjoy teaching. I had some stellar students to balance out the apathetic ones, and by the end of the year, I had seen tremendous growth in their reading and writing abilities. But I missed journalism – the excitement of chasing a great story or assembling an eye-catching design from a hodgepodge of pieces – and I was sure that a job teaching it was never going to open up.

But then one did, about two weeks before the end of the school year. Red Oak Junior High School – a mere 15 minutes from my house – was looking for a journalism and graphic design teacher. It seemed too good to be true, so I tried not to get my hopes up. But just a few days after submitting my resume, I received an invitation to interview. A few days after that, I was hired.

Of course, my new job led to thoughts of my own journalism teacher. I remembered his lessons about interviewing and news writing and photography; how he made us practice page design by clipping out parts of different magazines and putting them together in compelling ways, and how he made us stick to the space count in our headline writing, no matter how restrictive.

A lot of those more memorable lessons won’t work these days; headline counts are rarely an issue on the Web. But it’s the unwavering expectation of great work that is his legacy – his belief that we could learn to “improvise, adapt, overcome.” It’s what drove me to be better and faster and more meticulous every single day that I walked into his classroom, and later, into the newspaper. More importantly, it’s what made me want to be a teacher: the idea that someday, I might inspire someone else as much as he inspired me.

In the days leading up to the start of the school year, more than a few teachers told me journalism was a dumping ground, where kids who didn’t choose any other electives were placed. A few students seemed genuinely happy to be there, but many walked into my room with the same look of resignation I sported all those years ago. One girl looked miserably at her assigned summer reading. “I hate this book,” she said. “I hate this type of writing.”

“That,” I replied, “is not journalism.”