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6 GO TO CLASS, ZACH.

Matthew Tully Indiana University Press ePub

 

 

It feels a bit strange to bump into someone the day after you’ve put them on the front page of the newspaper. You never know what the reaction is going to be. Are they happy? Are they ticked off? Did you write something they want to complain about? What kind of reaction did they receive from friends, colleagues, neighbors, and even strangers? This is particularly true for columnists. We are expected to make judgments about our subjects, to say things a reporter cannot, and to express our own feelings. The praise or complaints that come after a column can make for an awkward moment. I typically prefer for a few days to pass before coming across the person I’ve profiled.

Not that I worry too much about the potential for a complaint. I am a columnist, and that means sometimes writing critically about someone, some organization, or some program. My job isn’t to make everyone happy. In fact, it’s often the opposite. I’m supposed to offer my opinions and my analysis of the issues and people in the news—good, bad, or otherwise. Pick any issue worth writing about, take any side on it, and you’re guaranteed to tick someone off. At different times, I’ve been on the receiving end of complaints from governors, mayors, and a long line of other public officials I’ve put in the paper. Ultimately, though, the only reaction I fear is the charge that I got something wrong. Not a complaint that I was on the wrong side of an issue, or that my analysis was harebrained, but that I simply and indisputably got a fact wrong. Like misspelling someone’s name. Or getting an age wrong. Or writing that a new state program would cost taxpayers $45 billion as opposed to $45 million. Those types of facts—those nitty-gritty details that are so easy to screw up on deadline and that are peppered throughout any newspaper piece—keep me up at night.

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14 WHAT’S GONNA HAPPEN, MR. GRISMORE?

Matthew Tully Indiana University Press ePub

 

 

I walked out of Spencer Lloyd’s class on the Friday before Thanks-giving after watching his choir prepare for its upcoming holiday concert—the Christmas Extravaganza, he called it—which was less than four weeks away. I was amazed at how far Lloyd had brought the choir in such a short time. The students were more focused and sounded stronger than they had just a few weeks earlier. That seemed to be a pattern. Each time I returned to the class, the improvement was noticeable, even to me, a guy who loved music but couldn’t carry a note and didn’t know the first thing about singing. Many of the students were just starting to learn the basics of voice control and pitch, but they were improving.

The class had spent the period working on the classic “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The students’ voices filled the room as Lloyd conducted furiously and moved around to hear the different singers, to make sure all of the students were doing their part. “Come on, sing it, sopranos,” he said. “Altos, come on, guys!”

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7 WE’RE NOT GOING TO BE AVERAGE HERE.

Matthew Tully Indiana University Press ePub

 

 

The thirty-one-year-old father of a Manual freshman walked into Dean Hoover’s office one morning. He moved fast and angrily and wore camouflage pants, a tan workman’s jacket, and a black cap. He came into the office without an appointment and spoke before being spoken to. “I want to talk to security,” he announced, interrupting a conversation I was having with Hoover and yanking off the cap to show a blond buzzed haircut and an earring in his left ear.

Hoover immediately recognized the man from previous visits and calmly asked him to sit down. He declined, pacing the room instead for a few seconds as he told Hoover that a boy at the school was harassing his daughter and that he was a few inches from handling the situation on his own, even if that meant throttling the boy. He said the boy, his daughter’s ex-boyfriend, was stalking her. The bullshit had been going on for a year, he shouted, but lately the situation had gotten worse.

Hoover looked up the girl’s class schedule on her computer as the man continued to talk, repeating his threat to take matters into his own hands. At one point Hoover hushed him as she held the phone to her ear and dialed the daughter’s third-period classroom, asking the teacher to send her down. Then she called Sergeant Barrow, aware that he might be the only one able to calm the man standing in front of her. As she hung up the phone, the father finally sat down. He began rubbing his face and looked just as flustered as he did when he walked in. “He’s been stalking my daughter for a year,” he said. “And now he’s hanging out with the guy who raped her last year. I don’t know what sick thing that’s about.”

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20 IT NEVER STOPS AROUND HERE.

Matthew Tully Indiana University Press ePub

 

 

Michael Robinson let out a sigh and stared at the smart-aleck freshman standing before him. It was only 8:15 AM, but Robinson already knew this was going to be one of those days that seem to last forever. A special education teacher for more than a decade, he had recently been assigned to work in the discipline dean’s office as a backup to Terry Hoover. The office workload—the suspensions, expulsions, arrests, and preemptive strikes—had gotten to be too big for just one person. Robinson had long sought an opportunity to move into administration. On this day, he wondered why that had ever been a goal. In the first forty-five minutes of the school day, he’d already dealt with a handful of class-skipping students and a potential fight between two girls. And now he had to deal with the smart-aleck freshman, a boy named Rrien who had enrolled in Manual at the start of February and in the two weeks since had missed his fourth-period class nearly every day. He stood in Robinson’s office wearing a pair of tattered khakis, a red shirt, and a smirk.

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25 NOW I KNOW WHY I’M TALL.

Matthew Tully Indiana University Press ePub

 

 

I continued to talk to Brent Jones as often as I could as the spring progressed and the end of the school year drew closer. His story had to be written. But for some reason I found myself struggling to write a column about him. I had started to write it several times only to be repeatedly disappointed with what I’d produced. Each time, I would temporarily push it aside and write a column on another subject. That wasn’t surprising. I had long found that the columns I cared the most about were the ones I had the most trouble writing.

Meanwhile, I had run into nothing but dead ends during my research about Brent’s birth mother, and I continued to worry about writing a column full of unanswered questions. I also wondered how readers would react. Most people are kindhearted, and the Manual series in particular had generated a wonderfully positive response. But some people can be horribly brutal toward the subjects of newspaper profiles these days, and there would undoubtedly be questions raised about whether Kim had done enough over the years or whether the story was even true. Others would hurl homophobic comments her way on online forums. I had warned Brent and Kim about this, but they both said they weren’t worried. Still, I struggled as I looked for the best way to tell their story.

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