Dead mentors leave clues as to when I feel like a real teacher

I knew my days in newspapers were almost over when I wrote the obituaries for Ken Fuson and Robert D. Woodward on the same day.

Ken was the best writer any of us at the Register have ever known. He may have been the best writer in the history of the Register.

He was a good, kind friend, whose faith rescued him from the evils of gambling addiction.

I think of Ken often, especially when I spill something on my shirt.

Ken always said he couldn’t get through a day without spilling food on his shirt. The same foible afflicts me.

I have lunch with Randy Evans, likely the best Iowa newsman anyone will ever know. I spilled some salad dressing on my shirt.

He saw it.

We both pointed to the sky.

“Kenny’s with us,” we said.

Woodward was the best teacher I ever had. He taught journalism at Drake University.

When he died, it hurt as bad as when my own father died, though I had not talked to Woodward for some time.

I called Lee Ann Colacioppo, one of Woodward’s students, like me, and one of my former editors.

We had both cried some that day.

She told me Woodward was the one person that she still actively tried to please with every decision she made as an editor.

That’s how good of a teacher Woodward was.

His lessons stayed in your head decades after you left his classroom.

I can’t tell you how many opening paragraphs I’ve re-written because of Woodward’s “it is” rule.

“There are 470,000 words in the English language,” Woodward said. “Surely you can find two that are better than ‘it’ and ‘is’ to begin a story.”

I wrote those obituaries in January 2020. I lost my job in May that year due to corporate cutbacks and the pandemic.

They tell you it isn’t personal. It sure feels that way.

My last two or three years in journalism stunk. The company had fallen in love with algorithms and metrics.

Stories that got clicks and shares were good, regardless of the topic. Stories that didn’t weren’t.

I tried to light up that metrics board. Sometimes I did. But I didn’t more often than I did, and it worked on my gut and my brain.

Only now do I realize that them cutting me loose was a blessing. I could finally lay down my notebook and pencil after 27 years. My fight was over.

I am a middle school teacher in Des Moines now.

I start work on Aug. 11.

I don’t know when I will feel like a real teacher.

I feel like an imposter at present. I had moments during student teaching in the western suburbs when I was close to being something that approximated a teacher if you squinted in the right light.

But soon I will have 150 sixth graders reading and writing.

I think the day I tell a student the number of words in the English language and how good an idea it is to use ones different than “it is” to begin a story, I will know Woodward is with me.

And I might just feel like a teacher then, too.

By the way, I’m not going anywhere.

I will still stack paragraphs on my blog.

I will still podcast with my buddy Memphis Paul.

I’ll still be doing some writing for the Marion County Express.

Fundraising will drop back to just once a year, to cover the expenses of the website.

You can kick the newsman out of the newsman, but you really can’t stop a writer from writing.

I will be a teacher.

I’m already a writer.

All that’s left is to keep moving forward.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for the Marion County Express.

Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
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