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The Human Angle
"It's time, Robby! It's time! They knew, and they let it happen! To KIDS! Okay? It could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any of us!"
-Mark Ruffalo as Boston Globe journalist Mike Rezendes, Spotlight (2015)
When the bell rings, I get up and head for the door of the school library, pushing the book I've been reading into my backpack as I walk. I don't have to hurry, I can easily get to my journalism class before the tardy bell. As I push through a throng of students and out the library door, a gust of wind comes flying at me, seeming to suck all the moisture out of my face and hands. It's like Southern California is so dry, it needs the wind to suck the water out of people's skin, droplet by measly droplet. I break into a jog to get out of the wind, out into the November air, my backpack digging into my shoulders with every step.
All urgency is gone from my demeanor when I step into the classroom. I sit down at the long conference table that takes up most of the room's space, with the air of one who has done this many times before. This class is responsible for releasing my high school's newspaper, The Scribbler, of which I'm news editor. Our latest issue came out a few days ago, and today is the day I always look forward to the most, when we pitch the next issue's story ideas.
Ms. Silva, the class's teacher, greets me as I sit down, as do some of the other students. The tardy bell rings, but we don't start yet, we're still waiting for Al. Alina Myers, who likes to be called Al, is our editor-in-chief, and she's the one who leads all our meetings. Ms. Silva approves decisions, but Al's the one behind the planning of every issue. Al is a junior like myself, and it's somewhat unusual to have a junior in that position. I could have applied for editor-in-chief last year, but I decided I didn't want to take on that job as a junior, and instead chose to be the editor of just one section.
Al walks in a few minutes later, and no one cares that she's late to the meeting she has to lead – journalists can't be on a deadline all the time, after all. She sits down, smiles, and soon people start offering ideas. I raise my hand.
"I'd be willing to write an opinion piece on the gun control debate." It would be the kind of political piece I've gained a reputation for. Well-researched and carefully structured, heavily data-reliant. I was the editor of the opinion section in my sophomore year, but I'd always written news articles about school events in addition to opinion pieces, and it made me fully appreciate how important facts are to any argument. One reason why I'd become news editor this year was because I thought it would better my opinion writing, to get into the mentality of cold, hard fact.
"What's your stance, Jake?" Ms. Silva asks.
"I'm very much in favor of gun control. I've already started researching. I mean, if you just compare statistics between states that have strict gun control laws and those that don't – take Hawaii and Alaska – you'll find a direct correlation between tight gun control and low gun death rates. Hawaii has the lowest gun death rates in the country, Alaska has the highest; and it's no surprise that they're also the states with the lowest and highest percentages of gun owning homes. And it gets even more obvious when you compare countries. Take the U.S. and the UK. The last school shooting in Great Britain was in 1996; after that, the government implemented the strict gun control measures the UK currently has. Really, it's so obvious, even Trump could figure it out; if he wasn't, well, Trump." I get passionate like that sometimes.
"But, criminals won't follow gun control laws," someone points out.
I'm prepared for that. Honestly, that's the worst thought-out argument against gun control in existence, if you ask me. "How do you define a criminal? As someone who intends to commit a crime? Because the justice system wouldn't agree with you on that, you have to have actually done something. By your logic, why have any laws, if people will break them anyway? Besides, the data clearly shows–"
Al cuts me off. " Jake, I can tell you know a lot about this, but my worry is that the student body won't be that interested in reading this article."
I'll admit that my articles are somewhat long-winded, but the best New York Times editorials are like that – you can't put a word limit on an issue like gun violence without giving the public a severely limited perspective. The New York Times is, simply put, the best newspaper in the world, and it's where I dream of working one day.
"Well, they should be. Especially after the election," I respond. "Frankly, it's their civic duty to be interested in issues like this."
"Still, try to find some sort of human angle. We're trying to make the students enjoy reading the paper, not shove it down their throats; we're not the New York Times, writing for Congressmen and Wall Street executives. Find a way to personally relate to our school community with this article. Make students care about this topic-"
"They should already care!" I explode. "They're American citizens, and future voters, and I'm trying to inform them. And yes, I know our articles are not New York Times-quality, but isn't that what any paper strives for? Articles like this put us a bit further on the path there."
"We don't strive to be the New York Times." Al says flatly. "We strive to be the student paper, and the students are not reading the New York Times. We're the face of this school, and we become better by accurately representing the community and its interests."
"For God's sake, are we some kind of entertainers? I thought journalists aren't supposed to be beholden to anyone, only to their duty to tell the truth. I’m sorry if my writing isn’t fun to read, but this kind of opinion writing is the best way to get the public to comprehend our country's problems; and a racist and misogynist demagogue being elected because the public doesn’t understand our country’s problems is no fun either.”
“Jake, that’s beside the point.”
“Is it? I just don't see why I have to dumb my writing down."
"That's enough," Ms. Silva says quietly. I don’t pursue the matter.
“Excuse me,” I say. “Al, I’ll try.”
Later that day, sitting in the library during my free period, I can't get Al’s words out of my mind. I must admit that she was right, though not simply because a “human angle” is what students want. I have to admit I've always dreamed of writing something that will touch everyone, that will unite people and make them feel. Besides, maybe my article would win a political debate, but that’s not enough. Liberals have all the evidence in the world to support our positions, but the way to persuade people is not with the evidence, but the presentation; an issue has to make people care, not just be of casual interest.
And, if a journalist can’t make their readers empathize, what are they good for?
Moments like this are the worst. I feel like all the ways I've grown thanks to The Scribbler have been for nothing; and I know it's irrational, but I can't stop. To calm myself down, I get a copy of the last issue of the paper from my bag, and look at my name in a byline, sticking like a flag on a pole above the field of text that is one of my articles. Jake Dattner, News Editor, it reads. It might be childish, but seeing my name in a byline has always calmed me down whenever I'm worried, reminding me that there will always be one thing I have accomplished. When I arrived at this school in the fifth grade, I was a very different person. I was shy, and my best friends were book characters. I didn't know how to talk to people, and I didn't make much effort to learn how. I always told myself that the other kids were just mean. That they ostracized me because I was the quiet, studious, unathletic kid who knew all the state capitals but didn't know or care how some team was faring in the NBA. I got a bit more social as I got older, but I still didn't feel like there was a place at school where I really belonged. Then, I joined The Scribbler in freshman year, for the chance to write opinion pieces on political and social issues that I was passionate about.
I didn't get to write opinion pieces right away, but after my first opinion piece came out, I realized that something had changed: I could produce work I was proud of. For the first time in my life, I wanted to be at the center of attention, to be noticed; because I finally knew how to show the world an image of myself that I liked. I didn't even care how my work was received- as long as everything I wrote was accurate, I didn't care if people said my arguments were illogical, or idealistic, or whatever. I didn't think so, and that was enough for me. In fact, I hope for criticism – it's more interesting.
I never wanted to be popular, but I cared what I thought of myself. I couldn't be social if I wasn't satisfied with the image I was presenting to the people I was being social with. It's like an art contest, where you aren't willing to hand your painting over to be judged until you've put every last finishing touch on it, even if the judges probably won't care (at least, so I imagine; I've never been in an art contest). The reason I hadn't had many friends previously had nothing to do with the other kids avoiding me, and everything to do with me not being confident enough to search for a way to be comfortable with myself, which led to me deliberately avoiding people.
A voice snaps me out of my reverie. "Hey, Jake!"
After I developed my new attitude about why I didn't have friends, my social life greatly improved. I became good friends with Al and everyone else on the paper, whose talents I respected and who respected mine. My closest friend isn't on the paper, though. His name is Carl Haughton, and we'd first started spending time together in middle school when we both realized neither of us was interested in pretending to be athletic. By the way, I always thought he carried a torch for Al.
Speaking of carrying a torch, there is someone else, too, a friend who I sometimes let myself hope can be a bit more than that, one day. Her name is Rachel Preston, and she sits in front of me in physics class. She knows every answer, and when she raises her hand, her ink-black hair briefly sweeps over my desk, drawing a picture I can never decipher. Rachel is able to see a bit of herself in everyone, and gives everyone a bit of her time without acting like time is something you have to budget. While I have to work hard to make people like me, everyone naturally gravitates toward her (myself included).
The problem is, I can debate gun control any day, but not carry on a conversation with her. I can't ask her out, because I have no idea how to act around her, how to make her like me.
Did I get distracted? Carl sits down at my table.
"Great paper, I was just looking at it. Did you pitch your gun control piece?"
We talk a bit more, and then he asks, "What’s Al like, when you have meetings?”
"Wouldn’t you like to know?” I can practically hear his face grow hot. “Well, unfortunately, I can’t tell you about our meetings. Journalistic integrity and all that. Of course, if you want to spend more time around Al, you can always join the class...”
It's a running joke between us. He hates writing, and wouldn't join the paper if his life depended on it. And, actually, that's what I like about him. He knows who he is, a slightly nerdy amateur computer programmer, who doesn't have good social skills but knows how to stick with you through thick and thin. He'll never end up pursuing dreams that seem to get more and more unreachable each passing day, he can be happy with what he has. Unlike me.
"Well, as far as romance goes, you're no Jack Dawson yourself. Are you ever going to ask out Rachel?"
"I sincerely hope I’m not Jack Dawson. And I never liked that movie, anyway. I mean, she's all 'I'll never let go', and then she lets him go? What's up with that?"
"You're dodging the subject." he laughs. When did he get so perceptive?
"Who's like Jack Dawson?" a familiar voice says. Speak of the devil...
Rachel sits down with us, across from me.
"Uh, some guy we know looks a bit like Jack." I invent quickly. "And he's really not that nice, you wouldn't like him.”
"Of course not," she grins. "Jack Dawson isn't really my type." Carl shoots me a look, like, It's your lucky day.
"You know what, guys?” Carl suddenly announces. “I just remembered that I have a math test to make up this period. I'll catch you later!" Before either of us can say anything, he gets up, gathers his things, and leaves. I suppose this is my comeuppance for joking about him and Al.
"So," Rachel begins, after a pause, "How are you doing?"
"Good, how are you?"
We keep on like this, having this circular conversation. Even if I am not brave enough to ask her out, if only I could say something that would interest her...
At that moment, a group of boys – the jock types – walk into the library. They're mostly seniors, so I don't know their names, but I recognize one junior, Peter Rodenham. Peter was friends with Carl and me in freshman year, but we drifted apart. Well, Carl and I started avoiding him. Whatever the three of us would do together, Peter never seemed to care; he didn't seem interested in anything we talked about. He was constantly talking about how rich his family was, and it was clear he thought it entitled him to be held in high regard. When Carl and I began finding ways to avoid him, I think he knew we were doing that; but he didn't care, he'd already begun to find new people he could brag to, among the jocks he is still hanging around today. He joined the basketball team, although he wasn't good at that, or at much of anything else – he gets terrible grades. Peter lives, and always has lived, through chasing popularity – a chance to assert that he was momentarily on top, as he had been told he was his entire life.
Finally, I see something to talk to Rachel about; anything will do right now. I overhear the jocks tell Peter that there aren't enough chairs at their table for him, leaving him to sit alone, at a table closer to me and Rachel. Maybe they're coming to realize what Carl and I did years ago.
"You see Peter over there?" I ask Rachel.
"Yeah, what about him?"
"Those guys just crowded him out of their table."
"Oh, yeah. Do you want to invite him to sit with us?"
"Why would I? Let me tell you about him. Carl and I used to be friends with him back in middle school, but we've really stopped spending time with him now."
"He wasn't interested in spending any time with us, he just whined about everything. There’s nothing that matters to him – certainly not being someone other people want to spend time with. People who do care about something he judges not worthy of caring about are a waste of time. And yet, just in case you thought he couldn’t get any more pathetic, he still wants to achieve this nebulous idea of popularity – and he tries to pay for it with his parents’ credit cards, but unfortunately the social success market has been cornered by people who actually have a life."
"Jake, do you mind if we change-"
I know we should change the subject, but I can't stop now. It seems to be my only way of keeping Rachel engaged.
"I'm just saying, popularity is literally all he thinks about. He's terrible at everything but clinging to all these groups of people – first Carl and me, now those jocks – just to get the heaps of praise he's used to getting from Mommy and Daddy. And he'll let people walk all over him to be allowed to spend time with them, or rather for his expensive car to be allowed to spend time with them, and still not be happy. Seriously, has it never occurred to him that it's a lot better to be able to rely on yourself for affirmation? Maybe he just knows there's nothing about him worth praising."
Why am I saying this? I might be opinionated, but saying something like this is completely out of character for me.
"Of course there's something about him worth praising!" Rachel exclaims in a furious whisper. I'd never heard her be so forceful. "He just doesn't know what about him is worth praising, that's why he needs other people to find it for him. And those jocks won't be doing that."
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Peter stand up. He approaches our table. "Excuse me," he says, speaking to both of us at the same time, "Can you guys help me with something for the physics test next week?"
"Sure," Rachel smiles.
"Okay," says Peter. He takes a deep breath before asking the question, as if he's rehearsed this moment carefully. "What's the unit of torque?"
Even before he asks, I can tell he’s not here to get help for the test. He’s here because he has seen that his sycophantic way of clinging to those jocks, who are now laughing among each other at their crowded table, can only get him so far.
Did he honestly expect anything else?
"Newtons per meter," I offer. He slowly bows his head, which I take as a sign of comprehension. "See you around."
Right after school, Rachel corners me.
"You told Peter the wrong answer!" she yells at me. "I don’t know how I didn’t realize it at the time, but the unit of torque is newton-meters, not newtons per meter. I only remembered now. And I know you told him the wrong answer on purpose! I could see it, you knew the correct answer!" She takes a deep breath. "Well? Are you going to deny it?"
"Doesn't seem to be much point in denying," I respond. "You know me so well." Did I just flirt? I can't believe I just said that, especially now.
"Why? Why would you do that?"
"It's not like he couldn't go online or in the textbook, and find out the correct answer himself. He didn't even have to ask. This kind of thing was bound to happen sooner or later; if he keeps relying on other people for the most basic things, and expecting them to comply, he's going to be in for some surprises."
"And what gives you the right to judge him? You were like him once, weren't you? I remember."
"I'm not ashamed of that time, because I found a way to change. But Peter doesn't even try, he just accepts a situation that he's obviously unhappy in. And, frankly, since he could at least try to improve his dismal excuse for a social life but doesn't, I don't have much sympathy for him. There are people who survived unimaginably worse situations than whatever he might be going through. He doesn't have the right to just give up."
"What gives you the right to judge him?" she repeats, calmly.
"Maybe I have high standards for people, but my standards for myself are even higher. And one of those is that unhappy people who live otherwise healthy and stable lives shouldn't just throw away a chance to improve themselves. That's not what I did."
"But others do. There will always be some who do, and that will never change. What are you going to do about it?"
"Nothing. I don't have to like them, that's all."
"That's a lot of people to not like."
"There would also be plenty of people left to like." Like you, I think, but of course I don't say that.
"You don't get it. You just don't get it." Rachel is speaking quieter than ever before, but the force in her voice is unmistakable. "Why can’t you try to get to know Peter, and other people like him, before writing him off? To see their perspective? Because that's what I do. Why does everything have to conform to your, or anyone's, standards? Why can’t you accept that the world isn't perfect?"
That's a question that, for once, I can't answer.
She turns and starts walking away from me. She says something, but the wind is rising again, and I can’t hear her.
With the wind ripping at my jacket, I make my way down to the school parking lot. As I walk over to my car, I see that Peter is parked alongside me. His car is considerably nicer than mine. But he himself is in the driver's seat, and he looks up briefly as I open my passenger door to put my backpack on the shotgun seat. In his rearview mirror, I see his face, tears trickling from his eyes.
As I often do, I stop at a nearby Starbucks on the way home. A middle-aged barista named Cathy (so her nametag says) takes my order, and I sit down by a window. I glance at my cup and roll my eyes – Cathy misheard my name as Jay, and I have a feeling this isn't the first time this has happened. I consider calling Carl to tell him about Rachel and Peter (and to find out how his 'math test' went) but I don't. I have no idea what to say about either of those encounters.
Suddenly, I see a familiar figure through the window. There's no mistaking it. Rachel has just gotten out of her car, and is now entering a nearby Toys 'R Us. Without thinking, I finish the last of my drink and follow her. The wind is so strong now, it makes it hard to open the door to leave the Starbucks.
I find her in an aisle of toy building sets. "Hi, Rach," I greet her. People don't call her Rach often. "Oh, hello," she responds. I ask her what she's doing here, and tell her that I was at Starbucks when I saw her enter the Toys 'R Us. She tells me she's buying a birthday present for her seven-year-old brother. What does she think of our conversation just twenty minutes ago? She doesn't look angry at me, but there's a new coldness about her. She's not as open as when she sat down with Carl and me in the library.
I start to form a question – what I'm going to ask, I don't know – when a woman turns into the aisle and bumps into Rachel, hard, almost sending her falling into me. A boy of about six trails behind his mother, holding a gigantic backpack. "Oh, I'm so sorry!" the woman says to Rachel, who reassures her she did nothing wrong.
Rachel and I don't have anything else to say, so we watch the woman and her son as they go further down the aisle. We're the only ones in the aisle, except for a bored-looking employee putting things on shelves at the other end, so we clearly hear their conversation. Apparently, it's the son's birthday, and he gets to choose any present he wants from here. He promptly chooses the biggest building set on the rack.
The mother pulls out her wallet and starts rifling through it, pulling out bills. But then, she doesn't stop doing that. She recounts her bills again and again, but they always come up the same. She checks to make sure she's emptied every pocket of her wallet, checks the coin pocket. No matter what, she doesn't have enough. Her countenance doesn't show it, but the boy instinctively knows that something has gone wrong on his birthday, and Rachel and I both see it in him. And then I realize who the woman is: Cathy the Starbucks barista, now off-shift.
Cathy looks around helplessly. She could try to persuade her son to choose something else, I suppose, but then his birthday would be ruined. Then I realize what she's doing: trying to stuff the building set in her son's backpack. She might get away with it, too, if the employee at the end of the aisle doesn't see her.
I don't initially notice that Rachel is no longer next to me, but then I see her walking toward Cathy, and then past her, toward the employee on the other end of the aisle. She tells him she's having trouble finding something, and she's in a hurry, and they go off together. Cathy somehow manages to fit the building set in the backpack, and she and her son go past me, in the other direction. And that's when I understand what Rachel was trying to tell me, what she's been saying since the day I met her.
I finally know how to truly touch people with a story. To tell the stories that most need to be told, the ones that are hidden in plain sight, there are times when a journalist must not simply discuss their subject, but be their subject. It can be enough to have just one moment where a journalist is not sitting across from the subject at a table, trying to judge the truth from their words. Not sitting with a notebook between you, not thinking about who to interview next or whether the subject has said something you can get a good quote from. It can be enough to just have one moment where the journalist is standing by the subject's side, seeing the world through the subject's eyes. I see it then, the human angle, as if the wind has blown it into my hands.
Cathy had previously set her wallet on the shelf after rifling through it, and had forgotten it in her hurry to leave. I pick it up and run after her. If she's afraid I'll report her, she doesn't show it. I hand her back her wallet and wish her son a happy birthday. She recognizes me from Starbucks, to my surprise, and I tell her my name is Jake. The wind has finally stopped, just at the right time.
At home later that day, I text Peter:
Hi Peter, it's Jake. I just realized that I gave you the wrong answer to your question earlier today. Torque is in newton-meters, not newtons per meter. Sorry! Hope that cleared things up. Good luck on the test.