Monica Yant Kinney: Masterman journalists cover Obama's visit

Posted: September 15, 2010

In the late 1980s, when I toiled at the North Side High School's Northerner, our French teacher was arrested on federal drug charges. Our coverage of the scandal landed me a college scholarship and launched my nascent journalism career.

That, I told student editors at Masterman High's Voices Monday, was nothing compared with Barack Obama stopping by your school to chat.

A presidential pop-in would go down as the Biggest.Story.Ever for some of the city's brightest young lights. Presuming, of course, they could decide what to write.

Members of the White House press corps are used to the short-term notice of their subject's movements, but Masterman students had barely found their lockers when they learned late last week that Obama would deliver his annual back-to-school address Tuesday in their auditorium.

Would-be Voices scribes still had to turn in permission slips to join the club, which had yet to hold its first official meeting. Returning editors had nearly finished the September issue and seemed initially reluctant to stop the presses.

"We're trying to get it out by Friday," senior coeditor Huizhong Wu explained Monday during an emergency strategy session.

The cover story, added senior coeditor Michele Ozer, was already in the can: "It's a feature on the new Spanish teacher."

'Going to be big'

Jenn Gentlesk, the newspaper's enthusiastic adviser, gently nudged the teens to consider the magnitude of the situation.

"We could always do a special edition or push [publication] back a week," she suggested. "I really think this is going to be big."

Gentlesk is a friend who'd invited me to talk to her staff last year. She gamely allowed me to return this week when I pitched a column about the presidential preparations, but once I sat down, I couldn't stop myself from joining in the brainstorming.

"Did you see all the landscapers outside?" I asked. "They're even power-washing the front steps."

The students perked up when the talk turned to classroom politics. The seniors gasped when they learned lowly middle-schoolers would be among the lucky ones allowed inside the auditorium. Who else, we wondered - besides Mayor Nutter's daughter, Olivia - would be chosen from Masterman's 1,200 students to fill 600 seats?

"Is it eeny meeny miney mo?" asked Wu, pondering a piece on reaction from those forced to watch Obama on TV in classrooms.

The editors debated whether students would honor requests to wear Masterman blue-and-white. Junior Enika Selby mulled a story on the one-day annoyance of metal detectors, saying she'd been warned to expect "airport security."

Gentlesk told her staff that custodians were granted coveted spots in the audience as a reward for working long hours to make the school shine. That story, we agreed, had amazing potential.

"Hopefully," she said, "we can get a picture of them watching."

The main event

By Tuesday morning, plans were still fluid. Ozer and Wu landed press passes, as did photo editor Sam Reitzes.

I watched the speech on the White House website and clapped proudly when I spied Ozer - in her new corduroy skirt - listening intently from a seat on the aisle.

"Everyone was so incredibly excited, there wasn't a single person without a smile on their face," she told me later via text message. "It was really unreal."

Perhaps unexpectedly, Ozer discovered how impersonal journalism can be when the assignment is to chronicle other people's once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Fellow seniors nabbed front-row spots close enough to snap their own photos and touch Obama when he waded through the crowd.

"I sat in the press area so I didn't really get to see him," the young editor noted. "Some of my classmates got to shake his hand."

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