A summer to make mistakes

A summer to make mistakes

I worried constantly about making mistakes, which, it turned out, did not prevent them. It was 1997, the summer I’d graduated from college, and I was interning with The Charlotte Observer, a daily newspaper in a city where I knew almost no one. I was a general assignment reporter earning $525 (Dh1,928) a week. If I performed well, I’d be considered for a permanent position.

The first of my mistakes was real but also, as later ones wouldn’t be, a little funny: A man called the newspaper to see if a reporter would be interested in documenting his proposal to his girlfriend, for which he was renting silver armour and a white horse and riding to the picnic she was attending with friends.

A photographer and I were with him as he donned the armour out of sight; my mistake came after he’d dismounted. He and his girlfriend were both in their early 20s, my age. I still remember that she dropped her beer bottle in surprise when he bent to one knee. What wasn’t clear to me was how close I ought to stand to the couple for the proposal itself. Did I need to overhear the actual words? What were my responsibilities to Charlotte’s reading public?

The other picnic attendees were about 15 to 20 feet from the couple; I positioned myself about 18 inches from them. I’m not sure if it took me days, weeks or years to realise I should have given them space, but in the moment, these were instincts I simply didn’t have.

When I wrote an obituary for an elderly woman, I got choked up interviewing the deceased’s friend. I also got choked up when I went to cover a local couple adopting five Russian siblings. On the afternoon the new family arrived at the Charlotte airport, they were greeted by a cheering crowd, and the Russian siblings looked overwhelmed. In late August, Princess Diana died, and after that I drove around listening to ‘Candle in the Wind 1997’, getting lost — this was years before I or most people had a cell phone or GPS, and I relied on a huge paper map — and flat-out bawling.

I wasn’t completely incompetent, but my bumbling seemed to extend in all directions. I often worked a 1 to 10pm shift, which meant that the exercise class at the Y that worked with my schedule was Moms in Motion, or aerobics for pregnant women, taught by a woman who was very pregnant. I was not pregnant, nor was I up to anything that could have made me so.

Back at the newspaper, I wrote about amateur tryouts at a comedy club, and I failed to get last names for a few of the people whose jokes I quoted. I was later told that the oversight was one of the reasons I would not be offered long-term employment with The Observer.

I suspect it was this error that led to my final and most dramatic one. For the last three weeks of my internship, I worked in the Rock Hill, South Carolina, bureau, where by coincidence six of the dozen or so employees were named John. I was assigned to cover the imminent verdict of a murder trial in a small town. An editor told me to try to get a comment from one of the jurors. As I left the courthouse on the second day, I saw a juror in the parking lot, approached him, and asked for his name and number so I could contact him after the trial’s conclusion. The man shook his head and backed away.

The next morning, the judge announced from the bench that he’d heard a reporter had attempted to talk to a juror. He summoned me to the bar, the part dividing the courtroom’s front and back, and, in such a way that his words were audible to everyone present, scolded me for the infraction. I happened to be wearing an uncharacteristically short dress that day (royal blue with brown and tan flowers, polyblend, from Old Navy), and my clothing choice reinforced the shame and exposure I’d have felt no matter what. My mistake was so obvious and therefore so humiliating; but also, a tiny part of my brain wondered, how did all other reporters know not to talk to jurors, even just to arrange to talk to them in the future? What manual had I neglected to read?

Either despite or because of all the mistakes I made, I learnt a lot from my internship — how to be politely persistent (it had previously struck me as unbearably rude to call people more than once without their calling back), how to write on deadline and how not to be diva-ish about getting edited. I learnt that most information is possible to find, somehow, and that research and reporting can improve not only articles but also fiction.

Now that I am 41 and the author of five novels, it’s tempting to pretend that I’ve figured things out, that I was a mess personally and professionally back in 1997 and I’m not anymore. But this isn’t true. I wasn’t a moron in 1997. I was observant and compassionate and often confused and filled with self-doubt. I am still observant and compassionate and often confused and filled with self-doubt. And yet it would be insincere to claim that I don’t take comfort in the illusion of having gotten my act together. Given the choice, I’d choose now.

I often think about how cyclical both good and bad fortune are; sometimes things fall your way and sometimes they don’t. Or at least if you’re lucky, sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t; if you’re unlucky, they never do.

Occasionally, I wonder: Is the man who rented the armour and the white horse still married to the woman he proposed to? What happened to the family with the five Russian siblings?

On my last day of work, I went out for barbecue with several people from the South Carolina bureau, and at some point, looking around the table, I realised that every single person I was dining with, each of the six of them, was named John. Because this had happened by accident, we were all enormously tickled, and my own weird name added to our delight.

And because this was 1997, none of us documented the moment by taking a picture or describing it on social media; it existed, then it disappeared. But still, it felt serendipitous — another of that summer’s unplanned events, except that there was nothing embarrassing or mistaken about this one.

Courtesy: New York Times News Service