Looking back on life, I can see pivotal moments. Some are more pivotal than others, but all of them in some way have made an impact on my conscience.
Such is the case when, as a senior in high school and serving as the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, I had to tell another student that a certain word was inappropriate for an article we intended to publish. I can’t remember the word now, but it was clearly a word that most students in the school would have scratched their heads over. And I didn’t care if it hurt her feelings.
The student wasn’t even a part of the newspaper staff.
I don’t remember her circumstances, but for some reason she couldn’t take the journalism class that made students a part of the newspaper staff. Maybe it was a course scheduling conflict. What I do recall is the newspaper advisor, a tall redheaded woman named Mrs. Walker, allowing this student to submit an article for the paper despite not being on the staff. It was my job to edit the article.
Lucy was an average-looking girl in most respects, but she walked with a limp due to her wooden leg. She wasn’t what I’d call attractive, even had the wooden leg been made of flesh. But she was smart. I at least admired that.
Nevertheless, the article she submitted was a good article, as far as high school newspaper articles go. Except for one thing. It had this three-dollar word right in the middle of it.
Again, I don’t remember the word. But it was multi-syllabic. At least three, probably four.
It was the kind of word George W. Bush would have stumbled over had he tried to pronounce it, which is why newspapers don’t print such words. In newspaper parlance–this I knew even as a high school newspaper editor–articles should be written on a sixth-grade reading level. And this clearly wasn’t. I could see my fellow students all through school scratching their collective heads, wondering just what it was this person wasn’t trying to say.
She brought the article to Ms. Walker on deadline and Mrs. Walker read it through then asked me what I thought.
“I think this word has to go,” I said.
“You think so?” she asked.
“Of course. You know the rule. Sixth-grade reading level.”
“But it’s such a good article.”
“Yes, it is,” I agreed. “But that one word just doesn’t fit in with the rest of it.”
That was the conversation Mrs. Walker and I had in private. The next day, Lucy came to the class to see if the article was going to pass muster. Mrs. Walker had told her that I had the final say.
Mrs. Walker was a Christian lady and didn’t like hurting people’s feelings. She had in fact selected me to be editor of the school paper in my senior year when I was only a sophomore. She had selected me because in my application to join the school newspaper staff I had mentioned that I wanted to someday own a newspaper. She admired my ambition. In truth, it was a silly high school boy’s dream, which has since been realized (somewhat) because I do own an online publication over which I have total control of the content.
So, Lucy came into Mrs. Walker’s classroom while I was there to see if her article was going to make the paper. Mrs. Walker pulled it out and went through it.
“It’s a good article, isn’t it, Allen?”
I nodded. “Yes, it is.” I looked at Lucy. “Nice job.”
Lucy got a big smile on her face. I grimaced behind a mask. I really wasn’t keen on a non-staff member submitting an article, but I didn’t want to upset Mrs. Walker. I felt like I was being gracious. Mrs. Walker scanned the article down to the word I didn’t like.
She inhaled then let a burst of hot air escape as she forced herself to look Lucy in the eye. “But I’m not sure about this word,” she said. “It fits. It seems like the right word.”
“Yes,” I interjected. “For an academic assignment, I would say it is definitely the right word. But we have to consider our audience.”
Lucy’s grin disappeared. I watched, nursing a small dose of schadenfreude as her shoulders dropped.
“But, I like that word!” she declared. “It’s the right word for the context.”
“I think we can come up with a less threatening word that would fit the context,” I suggested.
Mrs. Walker winced. “I like it, too.” I could tell she really didn’t want to tell Lucy her baby must be aborted. She looked at me with sad puppy eyes. “It’s up to you.”
No hesitation. I was emphatic. Not gloating, but firm. “No.”
I took no pleasure in saying it. But I knew it had to be said. The word wasn’t right for the audience. Our ninth graders would scratch their heads. Our seniors would ditch the paper and run for ice cream. I knew it, Mrs. Walker knew it, and I think Lucy knew it.
Still, the girl with the wooden leg huffed and stormed out of Mrs. Walker’s classroom faster than she had entered. Mrs. Walker glanced at me as if to say, “You crushed that poor girl’s dreams.” I shrugged with a hint of self-satisfaction on my smug face. In that deep place within one’s soul where the right decision must be made and somebody has to be the one to make it, I knew this was the best decision for the school even if for the wrong reason.
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