By Bill Rose. This story has been reprinted form the upcoming issue of Meek School Magazine with the permission of the Meek School of Journalism.
REFLECTIONS ON THE JOY OF INSPIRING STUDENTS IN THE CLASSROOM
AND THE LARGER LESSONS IN LIFE
When I retired from the news business after 42 years, God set me up with a dream job teaching journalism at the University of Mississippi.
I know God was behind it because every day for eight years I have gone to work in Heaven.
Now I am 70 and in January, for the third time in my life, I plan to retire. It’s time. And this time it will be for good. I swear. Really.
Still, I will miss it.
A big part of it is the sheer beauty of the place. It’s hard to walk beneath the giant, leafy oaks of the Grove, cooled by the shade, luxuriating in that soft green grass, inhaling the sweet seductive smell of the place without wondering if this is awfully close to what God was up to in the Garden of Eden.
All those trees and shrubs and flowering plants, all that green, have an instant calming effect. Remember, universities are places full of insecure people and more self-inflicted tension that you could imagine. I really believe the beauty of these surroundings, especially the Grove, is what allows this driven place to breathe. In fact, its very presence breathes for us. If you doubt me, take a good look at the classes that flock there in the spring, students and professors alike struggling to keep their eyes open as nature whispers to them, a balm for the soul. Peek at the benches scattered through the trees and you’ll find solitary folks — professor and student alike — taking a break, communing with nature, relaxing before plunging anew into the maelstrom.
But I will miss engaging some of the university’s brightest, most ambitious students in my magazine class, miss those “Aha!” moments when the light suddenly comes on in their eyes and they figure out how to make words sing, how to use the sounds of words to slow down a story or make it read faster, to finally break the shackles of the concrete and begin to use the abstract to pound home a crucial point.
I really believe it’s all about the students. I consider the students a sacred trust. It’s my job to not just impart information but to help them in any way I can. I have spent hours with individual students going over their stories and telling them how to make them better, what they have done right and, yes, what they have done wrong. They are tender young souls on a journey and they are looking to us for wisdom. We owe them our time, our knowledge, our hearts.
Without becoming schmaltzy and emotional, I cannot begin to describe how powerfully it affects me when they give me their hearts in return. I promise you, it is not money that kept me here for eight years. It is that feeling I get when they return after the course to thank me yet again or to continue to seek advice on their lives. Their challenge when they arrive at Ole Miss to confront the future is so great that we owe them every bit of magic, every scintilla of time we can possibly muster.
It’s not easy, of course. Writing is personal, perilous business, bruising and sometimes fatal to the ego. The high schools of Mississippi and, yes, even the University of Mississippi, neglected writing instruction for decades and this generation is paying a price for it. So, helping students figure out they could really do it if they thought about it is what has kept me going. I felt like it was an almost holy cause, no matter how ham-handed I might be sometimes in the instruction.
My class, Depth Reporting, has produced eight in-depth magazines in its eight years, exploring Delta poverty, Delta food and obesity, lessons that can be learned from a record Mississippi River flood, Mississippi’s Indian tribes and more. Each class started off in what
can only be described as a hopeless state of puzzlement and despair. But at some
point, they got it. The lights came on. In some cases, they came on brightly
enough to win national awards, producing the best college magazine journalism
A very special moment came when they won two Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards and our students were called onto a podium in the nation’s capital and congratulated by Ethel Kennedy, widow of the late attorney general who was involved in sending thousands of soldiers to Ole Miss after the James Meredith 1962 riot. “My, my,” Mrs. Kennedy told that first set of award winners. “It looks like a lot of things have changed for the better at Ole Miss!”
Watching the university grow and get better has been another source of happiness for me. When I was a journalism student here in 1965-69, the school had fewer than 5,000 students and was still limping along from the riot and the negative publicity and malicious political interference that accompanied it. The best professors did not want to come here. The New York Times poked fun at us with a story that talked about how some had viewed us as a campus of empty-headed scions of bankers and lawyers.
The journalism department operated on a shoestring budget out of an old wood frame house that seemed to have only three, maybe four full-time instructors and a relative handful of students. (Yet, that little department produced some of the best journalists in the land.)
Like Mrs. Kennedy, when I returned here in 2010 after all those years at The Miami Herald and The Palm Beach Post, I was amazed at how far we have come. A presidential debate. No longer just a department but a full, nationally known journalism school with nearly 1,500 students. An expanded football program and excellent athletic facilities. New construction all over an ever-growing campus. Each year, another record enrollment. Suddenly Ole Miss was being recognized for research and academics and getting better rankings nationally.
Yes, we still get really bright kids who enroll as freshmen with no clue as to how to write or why it’s even necessary. I fear for public education in this state. I fear, too, for a generation with such a short attention span, one whose members run into you on the sidewalk because they can’t pry their eyes from their iPhone text messages. But the university is starting to re-emphasize writing instruction, and I’m encouraged to see that, too.
For decades, I had to respond with a sheepish smile and defensive excuses when friends in Miami and Atlanta and New York and Washington would crack jokes about Ole Miss. “Confederate U.,” they called it.
Now I can point with pride to so many changes. We have a diverse student body and a school that at least grapples with the ever-present dilemma of race that so much of the rest of the nation foolishly tries to ignore. We have so far to go on this, but at the university, at least, we are moving forward a little at a time and doing it oh-so publicly. Ole Miss has always been under a microscope and always will be. But it looks shinier by the second.
It helps that we are cozied up next to Oxford, one of the coolest little college towns in the land.
And yet, all of this doesn’t do justice to why I love the place. Anyone who has gone to school here should instantly understand what I mean. Ole Miss, after all, is a state of mind, a place of dreams, a place in time where young men and women of a critical age enjoy the freedom and pleasures of college life before plunging into the hectic, deadly serious fray of the workplace. It is a proving ground, a place to learn and grow, a place where young people come to grips with who they are and what they can be. The fact that this is the most beautiful campus in America and, for better or worse, one of the most social and fun-loving (think: Grove on game day) merely intensifies the experience.
Boil it all down, and I think the key ingredient is freedom. Here, you are free to learn and free to fail. Either way, you learn. And you never forget the larger lessons learned at Ole Miss.
I will be forever grateful to God and Will Norton, dean of the Meek School, for the opportunity to be here learning all over again. But of course, we all know that I’ll be back again and again and again. You can graduate from Ole Miss, you can retire from Ole Miss, but Ole Miss never graduates or retires from you.
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