Whenever a question of liberal or conservative journalistic bias comes up, I think back to my eleventh-grade social studies teacher, Mr. Sykes. This week’s episode from my unpublished memoir about a blind student (me) in Darien High School shows why.
The one character here who has appeared before is Molly, last seen half-encouraging me in a quest that led to my date from hell.
It seemed to me that Mr. Sykes, my youthful social studies teacher, had to struggle with shyness as much as I did, one of the reasons I was drawn to him.
For my first paper in his course, I wrote about the causes of the War of 1812. He gave it a B. I despised students who tried to negotiate grades with teachers, but I’d worked hard on that assignment.
Standing at his desk, I asked, “Can you tell me what I did wrong?”
Looking up from his chair, Mr. Sykes answered, “It was missing a point of view.”
“But there are so many points of view. They all have some validity.”
“Then all you’re doing is making a list. You need a theory to have an organizing principle. Without that, a paper doesn’t have focus.” His words were direct, but his tone respectful.
“What about objective journalism?” I asked.
“Do you think newspaper articles are objective?”
“They try to be.”
“That might be so.”
His not exactly contradicting me left the issue to fester in my mind.
I hadn’t been the only one who put work into that paper. The librarians and my readers had gone through the catalogs with me for articles and books, and then my readers and I had skimmed tables of contents and indices. As my readers read articles aloud, I’d picked up page turnings and pauses for when I might need to return for some detail or other. “Go back to the second paragraph in section 2.” My instructions had to be terse, and I worried I sounded brusque. I brailled notes that were all but cryptic in their brevity in order to compensate later for my slow braille reading speed. Then I sat alone in the family room with my typewriter and piles of notes and pieced together the essay. I’d been astonished to find I had so much to say on something about which I’d known almost nothing two weeks before.
But effort wasn’t enough, and I knew it. You didn’t deserve a good grade purely for effort. Try as I might, I’d never become a chess master.
My next paper for Mr. Sykes addressed the causes of the Spanish-American War of 1898. Historians variously attributed it to accident, corruption and partisan journalism. I resigned myself to choosing a point of view and working from it. In fact, I became convinced that William Randolph Hearst had riled the masses into such a frenzy that President McKinley was forced to intervene in Cuba. It was consistent with Tolstoy’s argument in his epilogue to War and Peace (a book I loved) that Napoleon had been driven by the combined words and actions of all the people in France and beyond to embark on his disastrous march into Russia.
For the last part of the assignment, I had to lead a class discussion on the topic. Standing with the teacher’s desk at my back, I felt at ease as I made my presentation and responded to questions and comments. I knew the voice and style of each student. I knew my subject and, painful concession to Mr. Sykes, believed in my point of view.
After my presentation, Molly, who was in the same class, told me with something like awe, “I never knew you had such confidence.” Nor had I.
To read all my memoir excerpts to date, along with other recent posts, please go to the blog page of my website here.