Archive | December, 2011

In Service of Santa

25 Dec

Last night I watched the eight-year-old girl sitting on the sofa next to her 15-year-old brother, himself clicking unseen links on his laptop.

I overheard him and his father discussing what NORAD stood for. Wondering how such an odd topic came up on Christmas Eve, I learned that this is how high-tech folks track Santa these days.

“He’s in Portugal,” the brother announced, pointing to the screen.

His sister nodded, then came to sit next to me on the couch, where she went to work building a Smurf house on an iPad.

As I watched her work, I contemplated the simple daily act of service the brother was performing. I don’t want to give anything away here, but let’s just say that  the brother’s views about Santa’s role in the universe was, I’m guessing, considerably different from his sister’s. Still, he played patiently along, with nary a complaint about how this was pulling him away from Madden football.

Years from now (and I think you’ll agree with me here) her views about Santa are likely to change considerably – as might her views of other mystical beings in whom she places her faith. There will come revelations and complications, disillusions and re-affirmations, in her views of how the universe works, which divine beings might be running the show, and whether those beings really are keeping track of whose naughty or nice.  But what I hope will stick are moments like the one she just had with her brother: Small instances of generosity, kindness and sensitivity that unfold between caring people willing to meet people where they are in their own journeys – or, in this case, Santa’s.

“Oh,” she exclaims to no one in particular, suddenly setting aside her iPad. “I’ve got to go to bed. Santa’s coming.”

To which I could only say, “That’s right!”

Wakeup Call, WCUW-style

17 Dec


One morning years ago, I drowsed in bed long after the radio alarm went off, listening to a lively Texas swing number. To excuse my laziness I told myself I would listen to the end of the song, hoping to catch the name of the band – maybe someday I could catch them at Nick’s, or Gilrein’s, or Club Passim.

Then came the bad news.

“That was a 1946 recording of …”

Such is the charm of waking up each morning to WCUW, 91.3 FM, right here in Worcester. I would never get an annoying song stuck in my head, if only because, almost every time, it was a song I’d never heard.

This year, however, WCUW gave me a different kind of wakeup call – a call to a different kind of community service.

Like most people, I frequently think of service in the form of helping people obtain life’s basic necessities of food and shelter, or the things that directly impact their ability to obtain them, such as education and employment. That’s especially true during the holiday season, when most of us are drawn to providing others the kinds of domestic comfort we associate with this time of year.

Less tangible, but just as important, are the needs that public radio stations such as WCUW – or Worcester’s beloved jazz and NPR station, WICN 90.5 – provide their listeners: Cultural enrichment that goes beyond just a rich range of music and news, to our sense of individual and community identity. The things, in other words, that makes these properly fed and sheltered lives meaningful.

A quick visit to proves the point. First, consider the mission statement: “Community stations” offer a “third model of radio broadcasting beyond commercial and public service. Community stations can serve geographic communities and communities of interest.” They provide “a mechanism for facilitating individuals, groups, and communities to tell their own diverse stories, to share experiences, and in a media rich world to become active creators and contributors of media.”

Including, as it turns out, my students at Assumption College. Thanks to station director Troy Tyree, my writing and mass communication seniors were given a weekly half-hour radio show, College Connection; each student team provided three shows, developing the ideas, finding the sources and conducting the interviews even as they were also learning how to edit audio and, of course, the many nuances of a quality radio broadcast that the listener never thinks of.

Despite all those challenges, and the inevitable narrowing of focus of a college theme, the students surprised in their range of topics. Programs ranged from what it takes to make it as a local musician and Halloween stories/events to visits to Occupy protests in Boston and Worcester. Thanks to WCUW, students went out to experience the diverse voices of Worcester, then added those voices to their own in pre-edited programs, finally sending them out into the world. The knowledge that it was going out into the air, into the public forum, served as a tremendous motivator for most of those involved. And while many were attending class as the show aired, others enjoyed the thrill – and the terror – of turning the radio dial to 91.3 and hearing their own voice.

Plus, in visiting the station at 910 Main St., students learned from tireless and patient station director Troy Tyree – the only full-time employee – about the diversity of offerings, the challenges of technology, and the passion of a virtually all-volunteer operation. They even learned how, in serving the local cultures that are outside the homogenized mainstream, WCUW reaches out to the world – the station has listeners as far away as Albania and Italy.

While WCUW’s programming is a powerful metaphor for community, so was this course. It was created by former Assumption professor Jody Santos, and could not have been brought back this year without the on-campus technological assistance of Tom Burke, Laurie Palumbo and Ted Haley – as well as generosity and patience of Troy and his staff. Like all volunteer efforts, the programs often had their jagged edges, but WCUW understands that inclusiveness matters more than technological polish.

So when we think of community service, please consider ways to support these on-air places where our community meets. Buy ads to support your own businesses or causes – they are priced very reasonably – or, like my students, join the rich variety of voices on the air.

And, above all, listen.

You never know whose song, or story, you’re going to hear.

Student stories

7 Dec

I stand in my dimly lit journalism classroom, pointing toward the yellow-lit, pull-down screen bearing the typed words of a student from six years back, in the fall of 2005. As the students of 2011 listened, I praised the qualities of Danielle’s narrative lead, which starts with a boy at a local school telling her, “I had a dream about you last night!”

Danielle’s heart expands, expecting a “profession of love” so common from kindergarteners, and asks what the dream is about.

“You were a goat!” the kid tells her.

I tell my students that I’m still troubled by the paradox of the story: If she was a goat, how did the kid know it was her? Still, such problematic implications don’t diminish the power of these community service stories to amuse, or to move in more earnest ways. I share a few more examples, such as the one past student who was afraid that merely writing letters for Amnesty International wasn’t going to sound immediate and exciting enough in class (she overcame that fear), or the other overwhelmed by hordes of children at a Halloween Festival. If I had time, I’d share the one about a student at Heifer Project being knocked down by an over-eager hog during feeding time, or the one about the student who, on her first day in an after-school program, had a little girl volunteer, “My daddy grabs me by the shirt and yells in my face.”

These stories, and so many more, are part of the final paper in my Introduction to Journalism class at Assumption College. The students volunteer 25 hours at a local agency, then write an extensive profile of someone who works at that site, using the personal story to also illuminate the work of the agency and the social problems it seeks to address. A few years into teaching the course, it hit me that I’d spent all semester training them never to use first person – in the process never giving them the chance to tell the story of their own volunteer work. Enter the first-person column, telling the story of their semester of service, hopefully making some deeper point in the process.

Of course, the first-person stories pale beside the third-person profiles of the service veterans about whom the students have already written. Some have seen a childhood full of pets translate into an adulthood of saving abandoned animals, leaving them blessed with a wealth of dog and cat stories. Some interviewees have come from economic circumstances as difficult as that of the children with whom they are now working, if not actually worse. Some have barely survived genocide in Africa to reach out to fellow African immigrants in Worcester. One or two have gone out and created the organization where they now work, driven by a sense of both a community need and an imaginative vision.

But while 25 hours at an agency pales besides 25 years, this semester, as always, the students have come away with stories of their own. One talked of giving manicures to elderly women at an assisted-living facility, how one woman at age 92 keeps telling her what a good life she has, while another always falls asleep, letting her fingers go limp in the hands of the student, who simply continues her manicure. Another student at the same facility writes of how when this fall’s snowstorm knocked out the power, but not the bingo game my student calls. As my student writes, the residents sat “in near darkness with only the emergency lights on and barely any heat, forcing us to wear our puffy winter jackets. I was literally yelling out numbers with no microphone and getting waves of ‘Was that 53 or 63?!’ Yet, not one person complained as the game ran long, my voice tired and cracked, and the room grew to near darkness.” My student was even more impressed when, as the power outage continued, residents declined the offer of their families to pick them up; this was home, one said.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the age spectrum, came the child who learned how to swim courtesy of a journalism student. As the writer towed him across the pool, he began yelling, so she “held him and tried to figure out what was wrong. He told me, ‘let go, let go! I can do it! I wanna to it myself!’ So I held him by the hands, let go, and he started to swim towards me, as I backed away, inch by inch.”

And of course as we head into Christmas break all my students must back away, must let go, for at least the time being.

But not without their stories.

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