One of the best parts of my job is being able to find a little space in the newspaper now and then and fill it up with some writing that I think someone else may (or may not) enjoy. Thirty years ago I was a freelance writer, tired of having editors respond to my story suggestions with a perfunctory “thanks but no thanks — have something else in mind” and tired of competing with two or three or sometimes more other hungry freelance writers for one of the stories the editor actually did want (usually ASAP).
So when the chance came to start my own publication I jumped at it — I figured I would finally have an outlet for my own writing (and I wouldn’t have to argue with the editor), though I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to pay for anyone else’s work.
Today that’s still a perk of the job. But I have discovered another one that’s even better: Hearing from people who have read something in the paper and want to comment on it.
The story of the “inconvenient child” on March 26 touched a nerve with readers (see page 2 of this issue for more letters on the subject), and even prompted a column in the April 4 edition of the Princeton Packet. Dennis Scheil, a graduate of Princeton High School who also has a master’s degree from Princeton University, wrote an account of his struggles getting his elementary school son settled in the proper program — all eerily similar to Michael Graziano’s account in U.S. 1.
I also received a few additional, off-the-record comments from friends. A former neighbor wrote “publishing ‘An Inconvenient Child’ was a departure, wasn’t it, from the usual cheery and non-political features? I was deeply moved by your decision to print that piece. I do think parents back off way too easily when they should instead move in — at least be present and available — and definitely an advocate without maintaining a ‘my kid is always right’ attitude.”
The former neighbor added in a few words in response to my columns about intervening in my own son’s scrapes with the school authorities: “You’ve done a remarkable job. Your kids are wonderful. I like your managerial approach.” (Fathers seldom get as much credit as they deserve — I will accept that compliment on behalf of a lot of deserving dads.)
Another reader, who has considerable inside knowledge of the public school system, accurately predicted that we would not hear a peep from the school itself. But, he added, “teachers and staff and administrators are all looking over their shoulders for the next ‘Why didn’t you see this coming’ brick bat being thrown at them.”
The system, hampered by things like the “humongous anti-bullying legislation dumped on the schools with no money for compliance even though the law requires a huge amount of paperwork,” does not appear to be conducive to either nontraditional approaches or common sense solutions.
A few of my columns traveled long distance — if that phrase still means anything — to reach some appreciative readers. My contemplation on retirement, printed in the March 12 issue, reached a North Carolina-based juvenile officer who was retiring that week after 27 years of service in his county’s juvenile detention center.
Del Jones, whose daughter sent him the column, shared his own, more immediate, thoughts on retirement: “As I turned in my policy and procedures manual a few moments ago, I got a little choked up, which I didn’t expect to do. Later today there will be a small (‘small’ at my request) reception in my honor. I had requested that nothing be done, but my superiors prevailed.
“Your U.S. 1 logo reminds me of a fantasy that I have of driving the entirety of U.S Highway One from Maine to Key West. Whether or not I get to realize that dream remains to be seen.
“My biggest concern right now is not crying at the reception (smiles). I did have a private moment last Friday when the realization hit me, and I did give way to tears. I am right now shredding years of accumulated reports, memos, cards, letters, etc. — how much of my life is being ground away by the machine in front of me. Of course my life is not over, and I hope to have the enjoyment that you wrote that your father enjoyed. Just have to get through these next few days (smiles).”
Jones noted that before he began his work in juvenile corrections, he majored in music education — his primary instrument was the tuba with a voice and piano minor. I wrote back to him and suggested he had the perfect “further” life to pursue. On second thought I think he should combine the music with the trip down U.S. 1. Maybe he can get a winter gig at a venue in Key West.
If the heart beats a little more quickly at a personal piece of E-mail, it races at the sight of a piece of snail mail. One came in the other day from Salford, England. It took me a while to figure out what it was in reference to:
A friend of mine in New Jersey with whom I have corresponded for some years enclosed a cutting in his last letter to which, as an atheist, I would like to respond.
I think the objection to the cross being put on the beam is wrong. It is meaningful to Christians in the community and it would not offend my belief. As Voltaire put it, “I do not believe in what you say but I defend to the death your right to say it.”
[At this point I figured the letter out. It was a response to my column of September 11, 2013, prompted by the controversy over the presence of a cross burned into an I-beam intended to be part of a Princeton 9/11 memorial and then extended to cover a few other matters of religion and faith.]
I do like the answer you would give to God should your belief prove to be wrong. “Well, I’ll be damned.” That’s good! Would you mind if I make use of it myself should the need arise?
To which I can only respond: Jim, as a faithful reader, you are entitled to use it any way you can. But just don’t count on faithful readers getting the same consideration as other kinds of faithful. Good luck and thanks for reading.