The future of education in N.C. (and why I’m a freelance journalist)

FIRST PERSON | Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet young N.C. fourth grade teacher Justin Ashley (pictured above), sit in his classroom and talk to him about the future of education in the Tar Heel state for a Yahoo! News article.

Read the story here: “N.C. School Teacher: Gov. Pat McCrory, Walk a Day in My Shoes.”

 This story was my first news article in over a month. And it helped me put some of my life plans, at least the ones involving writing, into perspective.

I’ve loved writing ever since I learned how. I remember, as a child, buying Oxford index card containers full of hundreds of 5 x 8 index cards on which I’d write short articles– recaps and reviews of episodes of Scooby Doo, first-person stories about how I felt about my school instructors’ teaching methods, and tips and walkthroughs for getting through some of my favorite Nintendo games. Nobody else read them of course, but it was important to me, even then, to write consistently regardless of the audience.

Bouts of hypographia came in waves later in high school, where I attended several creative writing courses. I loved fictional writing and would often write several pages a day. I wrote about a hundred pages of poetry through high school, but for whatever reason, made no attempt to publish them. It wasn’t until my first semester in college that I was first published in my college newspaper. My first year there, I moved from intern to staff writer to senior writer, before becoming the arts and entertainment editor, while also freelancing for various blogs and magazines.

At the beginning of summer in 2012, I came upon a temporary job opportunity to cover the Democratic National Convention for Yahoo! News. I applied and got the job. Though the application was for a temp position, I wanted to get my foot in the door of mainstream online news publications and get my name out there. Around the same time, I moved up from arts and entertainment editor to managing editor of my university newspaper and dropped all other freelance projects with other blogs and magazines.

Outside of my 15-hour credit course load each semester and a part-time job at an academic library, I focused solely on my managing editor position, where I gained a new-found sense of understanding, appreciation and aversion to the macro duties of overseeing an editorial staff. I spent a year in that position after contributing to the publication for three years, and stepped down to explore other opportunities. I continued writing short news stories and features for Yahoo, either through Yahoo! News or one of their other blog sites. And as an aggregate for all of my recent pieces and for more personalized content, I created My Vinyl Muse.

Fast-forward to more recently at the beginning of my last year of college, I’ve been trying to explore all of my post-graduation career prospects. Because of my work background, many of my friends and family assumed that the next step would be to finish my journalism minor and sociology major and move on to a full-time job at some publication, probably as a beat writer on environmental issues, education reform, LGBT and immigrant rights or other social issues.

While that has always been a route that I’d be open to taking, it was never my plan. It still isn’t. In fact, there are several reasons why my experience in journalism so far has left me almost totally turned off by the idea of working full-time at a publication (I’ll save that story for another day). And so it’s been hard for me to put into words why I write so much if I don’t want to be a full-time writer after I graduate.

Back to my interview with fourth-grade teacher Justin Ashley– I sat with Justin in the child-size desks of his elementary school classroom and spent thirty minutes talking to him about what he does as a teacher everyday. I was there to interview him specifically about his public challenge to N.C. Governor Pat McCrory to teach for a day, but it was more of a conversation. Justin would ask me about what I wanted to do after I graduate, and I asked him what the future might look like in his school if North Carolina legislators kept cutting funding to grade schools. Some of my questions were simple to break the ice. But some of them were more personal– such as where he might be if he never received a scholarship to get a degree in education.

I started to think about how uncommon it was to be deep in a conversation with someone who I had just met and engage in an honest conversation about serious issues facing our state.  I learned about Justin’s approach to teaching, about how without a scholarship, he would probably work in fast-food or serving in the military and about how his school will adapt to budget cuts. It was a wonderfully odd situation, and I don’t take it (or situations like it) for granted. With what other profession would I be able to speak so candidly with someone I’d never met and tell his story to thousands of others who wouldn’t have hear his story otherwise? None, that I know of.

While my article on Justin became one of my most-widely shared pieces to date, to say my experience writing it was particularly unique may not be true. I write stories like Justin’s often, or at least I try to. There is an endless stream of interesting people doing big things who are willing to chat. In fact, after leaving Justin’s school, I went to interview a musician who is releasing an album of protest songs about N.C. legislators. Just this past year, I interviewed Joss Whedon about the Avengers, a sports fanatic who helped bring the Hornets back to Charlotte, an artist who sketches wounded soldiers and an acclaimed Apple app software about how to create a marketable app. Justin’s story is just another highlight.

I’ve already made up my mind that full-time employment at a publication is not what I want to do with my life, and I promise to elaborate on that topic another day. But story-telling through written word will probably always be a huge part of my life. It’s something that I’ve always been passionate about. And as an introvert, it’s always been the best outlet for me to express my thoughts and ideas in ways that I may not be able to articulate through another medium. Whatever I decide to do, I will always be a part-time writer.


Read about what Justin’s story. And tell me about your story. What is something you’re passionate about doing that you’ve once considering turning into a career? Chime off in the comment section.