Unanswered questions

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National Public Radio photojournalist David Gilkey’s name those of other journalists killed in 2016 on the Journalists Memorial at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The memorial was rededicated on Monday, June 5, 2017. Gilkey and his translator Zabihullah Tamanna were killed in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, on June 5, 2016. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Copyright 2017

The first text came at 9:01 a.m. Friday, June 9, 2017.

“Just a word of warning–tough story on NPR today about Gilkey.”

I hadn’t heard it yet.

David Gilkey and I had been friends since our college days at Oregon State. We both became photojournalists who covered conflict. On June 5, 2016, David and his Afghan translator, Zabihullah Tamanna, were killed in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

“David and Zabihullah were on assignment for the network traveling with an Afghan army unit. They were in an armored Humvee driven by a soldier of the Afghan National Army. All three were killed after the Humvee was hit by rocket propelled grenades in an apparent ambush.”

That’s the initial report by NPR’s Eyder Peralta on June 5, 2016. It continues.

“NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and producer Monika Evstatieva were also in the convoy, traveling in a separate vehicle. They were not injured.”

After the initial story last year, I called my friend, the same friend who texted me about the recent story. He’s served in combat. I had one question.

I want the answer and I don’t want the answer, I said. He understood the question I hadn’t asked. It’s impossible to know, Cheryl. If it’s an RPG, the concussion of the explosion likely knocked him unconscious. He likely died quickly.

The texts continued throughout the morning.

“Did you read/listen to the story posted today?”

“From NPR News: Sorry to share this. Wondered if you read it.”

Not A Random Attack: New Details Emerge from the Investigation of Slain NPR Journalists

I hadn’t read it. In the afternoon, the story aired during “All Things Considered.” I sat tucked in a chair in my friends’ D.C. living room, crouched next to the radio, listening.

I had traveled to D.C. days earlier to attend a ceremony at the Newseum, a rededication of the Journalists Memorial.

“Journalists last year faced unprecedented dangers as they strove to report the news, often in countries where press freedom is imperiled or nonexistent,” said Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute. “The journalists recognized on this memorial laid down their lives in their effort to serve the public, many of them continuing to work after being attacked or facing death threats.”

The latest NPR story revealed new details. And raised more questions.

“Tamanna did not die from a rocket-propelled-grenade attack, as originally reported. He was shot. This fact was suspected by other NPR journalists who saw his body shortly after the attack and is now confirmed by the Afghan Ministry of Defense.

And unlike Gilkey, Tamanna did not suffer any burns, a fact that further casts doubt on the original story of a sudden, random attack by hand-launched explosives.

New reporting confirmed by Afghan officials indicates that Gilkey died inside the vehicle, and Tamanna died outside.

Gilkey died of severe burns to his upper body. It is unclear whether his vehicle was struck by an RPG. Aside from the burns, he did not have any injuries that would indicate close proximity to a blast.”

The story had audio clips of both David and Zabi’s voices woven into the reporting by Tom Bowman and Monica Evstatieva. Neither has since returned to Afghanistan.

After the story ended, I went downstairs. A while later, my friend came down. She peeked her head in the door. I wanted to see if you’re all right, she said.

My friends are both retired radio reporters. She’d listened with me in the living room. Her husband had arrived home while the story was being broadcast and stayed in the car to listen to it. Between all of our years of reporting, we’d covered stories that mirrored the stories David had covered in Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda, Liberia, Bosnia, South Africa. Famine. War. Natural disasters. Elections.

In the year since David’s death, I had the comfort of knowing he had lived a life he loved. He loved his work and he’d made a powerful contribution to our world. I also took comfort in the thought that he had died doing what he loved. And that he hadn’t suffered.

The radio report yesterday seemed to reveal otherwise.

The messages on Facebook and the texts continued to arrive. When I woke the following morning, I found more messages.

“How are you…NPR is covering David’s death again…I’m sobbing,” my friend wrote across many time zones. “I only listen to NPR when I drive, so I’m parked.”

I exchanged messages with another friend.

“Yes, that is very hard/unsettling to hear,” she wrote. “I sort of hope that his parents don’t hear it. Too many open-ended questions, the sense of betrayal, and the condition in which David’s body was found are all very upsetting.”

Betrayed. Burned to death.

David and I covered many of the same stories and countries, never at the same time. We came and went from each other’s lives over the years, though not with the regularity of the Perseids meteor shower that lights up the summer sky in our beloved Oregon each year. Years and miles flowed between us and our encounters. Yet we remained always in each other’s lives, even when we didn’t have eyes on.

As a correspondent, I know how to seek cover. As a civilian, I know how to seek shelter.

In the days and year since David’s death, I have found shelter among my tribe of journalists, specifically international journalists. More specifically, those who have covered conflict, risked their lives and mental health to shine a light in the darkness.

Before the Newseum memorial, a group of David and Zabi’s friends and colleagues gathered on a Sunday afternoon across miles and cultures to eat, drink and share stories.

The day after the memorial, I went for a 13-mile walk, with trees, a river and birdsong for company.

Late in the afternoon, I returned to my friends’ home. After sharing a meal of good food prepared with love, we lingered on the porch long after the light left the sky.

To be an international correspondent. To cover conflict. To witness and document both the brutality and beauty of our world. That’s the choice both David and I made, as have other journalists. Journalists whose names are on the memorial at the Newseum. Journalists who continue to take the risks to report in our neighborhoods and around the globe. Journalists who live to tell the stories.

The choice is not a reckless one. It’s an eyes-and-heart-wide-open choice.

It’s not a death wish. It’s a life wish. A life of purpose. A life of service. A life freely chosen.

And in David’s case, a life taken.

 

 

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Practice what we prize

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By Cheryl Hatch/Copyright 2016

 

“Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

 

When student journalists put the final fall issue of the college newspaper to bed last December, I breathed a sigh of relief. Incredibly, we’d made it through the semester without any threats. Challenges, yes. Threats, no.

 

They published their last issue for this academic year on Friday, April 29, 2016. We celebrated another award-winning year—and a full year unmarred by threats.

I’m the adviser for the student newspaper. I am also a career journalist who’s covered conflict in the Middle East and Africa. I came to the college in 2012 after completing assignments in Afghanistan.

 

In a decade of covering conflict, I’ve dealt with threats. I never expected to encounter threats on a small college campus.

 

In my first year as adviser, a student journalist wrote an article about a sex education workshop that generated some controversy—and threats, many from fellow students. Some of the threats were anonymous, through social media; others through the grapevine. Some threats implied bodily harm. The student’s mother said she was coming to remove her daughter from campus out of fear for her safety.

 

I spoke with the student’s mother, the counseling center and campus security. The dean of students joined the conversation. The student did not return to her dorm room that weekend. She stayed in a secure location with friends.

 

Another story reported the arrests of two students on multiple drug charges. After this story published, a group of students stormed the newsroom, shouting and throwing things. One of the frightened student journalists had 9-1-1 keyed on her cell phone. When another student journalist was walking across campus with a stack of newspapers for delivery, a passing student asked if she worked for the paper. She said yes, and the student spit on her.

 

After a story last year, a student was singled out in her class, bullied and intimidated solely for her participation on the newspaper. Despite the stress she felt in class, she didn’t file a complaint. She feared reprisal and further harassment. She feared her grade might suffer. I checked in with her in person or by text after nearly every class.

 

In the spring of 2015, a student objected to an opinion piece about snow removal. He wrote a lengthy, angry, threatening email to the student writer then later to the editors. He demanded the opinion piece be removed and he wanted an apology, though he was not the subject of the piece.

 

The student journalists offered the appropriate recourse for the aggrieved student. They told him that he could write a letter to the editor or his own guest column. He didn’t. He continued to intimidate the staff, primarily through email until one night he came into the newsroom uninvited and hovered over an editor.

 

I spoke with the counseling center multiple times and campus security. I discussed the situation with the student editors and they decided they would try to work through it before they asked the counseling center and administrators to intervene.

Next, I was called into a meeting and learned the angry student had filed a complaint against me. He was threatening legal action.

 

I explained the emails, the escalating, out-of-proportion behavior and the course of action I’d taken. I expressed my genuine concern for the safety and wellbeing of the student journalists and myself. The administrators blamed me for not meeting with the student. I said that I would not meet with a student who had threatened other students.

The student journalists handed over all the emails and explained their concerns. We were sure that would be the end of it.

 

I was called into another meeting and asked to sign a no-contact order, indicating that I would have no contact with the student. I didn’t understand. What is it? And why would I sign a no-contact order for a student with whom I’ve had no contact? Will he sign an order to have no contact with the student journalists and me? I declined to sign a no-contact order.

 

In the last meeting, the administrators told me the student had said I was harassing and following him, making him uncomfortable. I said that’s simply impossible since I didn’t know him. Noting details revealed in the conversation, I realized that the student knew my schedule and routine and he was following and observing me.

 

The administrators said they found him credible. I found a lawyer.

 

I followed my attorney’s advice. I wrote an “in-case-anything-should-happen-to-me” letter, tucked it in a drawer and informed a trusted friend of its content and my situation. She encouraged me to trust my intuition.

 

I stopped returning to my office at night. I changed my schedule and routine. We changed the open-door policy at the newsroom. The door now remains shut and locked when students are working.

 

On the advice of my attorney, I did not attend our college’s bicentennial graduation last May. I didn’t see students I’d come to respect and cherish, including several members of the newspaper staff, celebrate their accomplishments. I didn’t get to meet their families and pose for photographs. I left town.

 

After the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon last fall, my friend texted me: I couldn’t help but think of you spring semester.

 

Our college has a statement of community that offers students and employees “an inclusive, respectful and safe residential learning community that will actively confront and challenge racism, sexism, heterosexism, religious bigotry, and other forms of harassment and discrimination.”

 

I have not experienced this community.

It’s said that if students are going to be journalists, they should get used to criticism and learn to weather the tough spots. That’s true. A career in journalism will require a thick skin. As the late, iconic White House reporter Helen Thomas said: “We don’t go into journalism to be popular. It is our job to seek the truth and put constant pressure on our leaders until we get answers.”

 

It’s one thing for someone to object to a story in the college newspaper; it’s another to cross the line into bullying and threats. I want people to remember that the student journalists are first and foremost students. They are entitled to the rights and protections in their learning environment as outlined in the statement of community.

 

I understand this abusive intolerance is not unique to our campus. It’s become part of our political polemics. It’s voiced nationally and globally. We need to address the problem.

College is a place to learn to think critically and speak freely. Our college offers an annual prize of Civility in Public Life. Practicing civility on our campus would be a good start.

Let’s create a class that teaches students how to read the news and respond respectfully. Let’s learn to offer criticism without condemnation. Let’s teach students how to disagree without hurling toxic language, accusations and threats.

 

I’ve been warned that speaking up about these incidents could have repercussions. I also know I am a journalist and an educator. I teach in a newsroom and a classroom. I teach by example.

 

I will no longer be silent.

 

And I will attend graduation this year.

 

Note: This column was first published on The Huffington Post on May 5, 2016.

Emerald swings for the fences

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Emerald Wright-Collie climbs the stairs to the enter the auditorium at Allegheny College’s commencement ceremony on May 14, 2016 in the Wise Center. Wright-Collie graduated with a bachelor of arts in communication arts and a minor in journalism in the public interest. Photo by Cheryl Hatch/c. 2016

Outside the Box, by Cheryl Hatch, Copyright 2016

Each semester in our news writing class, I give students an assignment to interview a professional journalist. Below are the opening words of the assignment.

Have fun and aim high. This assignment is for you. It gives you an opportunity to network and learn from a professional journalist. Be bold. Prepare well. Ask thoughtful, intimate questions.

 I then ask a few students which journalist they’d like to interview. In my first semester at Allegheny, a woman in the back of the class said Anderson Cooper. A few students laughed, snickered possibly. I asked the student why she chose Cooper. She’d followed his coverage of Katrina. She admired him and his work.

She sent emails and called his office. She wrote a letter that I passed from a friend to a friend to a relative of Cooper’s. She worked all semester to score the interview. She didn’t get it. She did get the assignment and made the most of it. As a professor, I value and encourage that kind of failure.

That’s Emerald. She swings for the fences.

During our “Story Next Door” journalism conference in 2014, Emerald studied the work of the speakers and made sure to meet each of them. She didn’t know about f-stops and exposure, but she knew she wanted to learn more about photojournalism. She sought out Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Michael Williamson of The Washington Post and spent an afternoon with him on the Ernst Trail, learning to see light and moments.

At our conference this year, Emerald took a point-and-shoot camera to Erie and documented the arrival of a refugee family from Somalia and the neighbors who welcomed them to their new home. Her photo of 8-year-old Adna Hirsi ran in the Erie Times-News.

When she was exploring media relations as a career path, she followed a lead and contacted an Allegheny alumnus who worked in marketing for the Miami Heat. She met with him over her summer break. When she wanted to learn more about sports reporting, Emerald contacted an Associated Press reporter who covers the Marlins and studied him as he covered a Major League game.

Emerald also swings and misses. She missed deadlines. She missed classes. She missed appointments.

We started meeting every Friday.

We talked about the internship she was completing at The Meadville Tribune. During these conversations, I realized Emerald was up against some tough odds and demanding circumstances. Allegheny can be a challenging environment inside the classroom and outside it. Each year, nearly every semester, Emerald had an obstacle to surmount outside her college life—outside her control. She persevered.

There were a few semesters when she wasn’t sure she would return. And she always returned.

People think I’m stupid, Emerald said, during one of our conversations. They act surprised when I say something intelligent.

I assured her that I’d had the same challenges in my career. I told her I consider it a tactical advantage when people misjudge and underestimate me. I carry Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote in my head for just such occasions: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

As an educator now, I follow the example of professors who made a difference in my college career. Dr. Rob, who died earlier this year. When I was knocked off balance and off course my sophomore year, his words and strong presence helped me right myself.

And Jim, my adviser and photojournalism professor. I got a B+ on one of my first photojournalism assignments. I asked him what I had to do to get an A. He asked why I wanted an A. Because it’s there, I thought. Because an A is the best score, I said.

He told me my prints were too flat, not enough contrast. No true white or true black, not enough tonal range. I spent hours in the darkroom and went through boxes of photo paper on each assignment. By the end of the semester, I knew how to print. And I earned that A.

That’s one of the reasons I treasure Emerald. She never gave up—even when the going got tough. She pursued her education with grit and gusto.

I tell students that how they show up in the classroom is how they’ll show up in life.

Emerald shows up. She keeps showing up.

She reminds me a bit of me. I swing for the fences, too.

Emerald has smarts. No doubt about it. She also possesses the skills and qualities that I can’t teach, skills I deem valuable in a career and life. Emerald has moxie. She shows determination, resourcefulness and undaunted initiative. She can read a room and read people. And call b.s. from a mile away.

With her family in attendance, Emerald will graduate on Saturday with a degree in communication arts and a minor in journalism in the public interest. With her senior composition, she tied together all her interests: media studies, journalism, basketball, social justice. In her comp entitled “James the Savior: An Analysis of the Construction of a Cultural Myth in his Return to Cleveland,” she analyzed the messages that LeBron James embodies in photographs.

Emerald’s got game. And she’s got a job. After graduation, she’s moving to New York.

While she’s there, I bet she’ll score that interview with Anderson Cooper.

 

Note: I offer my congratulations to the 2016 Allegheny College students who’ll graduate Saturday. I want to especially acknowledge and thank Emerald, Christina, Meghan, Becca and Chloe; we all started at Allegheny together, and it has been my privilege to work with and learn from you. Congratulations to the parents, family members, friends, professors and staff who helped you cross the finish line, the stage and the threshold to your new lives and careers.

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Emerald Wright-Collie greets President Jim Mullen as she receives her diploma at Allegheny College’s commencement ceremony on May 14, 2016 in the Wise Center. Photo by Cheryl Hatch/c. 2016

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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In troubled times, language can divide or bind us

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Outside the Box, a  column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2015

When I was in teenager, my father announced at dinner one night that we’d be moving to Saudi Arabia. I didn’t know where Saudi Arabia was, but I wanted to go. After the meal, I went downstairs and pulled out an atlas and found the large desert country on the other side of the world.

I couldn’t wait to go. I wanted a change and an adventure. I parted with my beloved Ford Mustang, which I had purchased with my hard-earned fast-food and waitressing wages. We landed in Riyadh and I discovered we had moved to a country where women were banned from driving.

The dictates of the culture and laws of the land clipped my teenage wings and quashed the independence I’d enjoyed in America. I couldn’t leave the house on my own. I had to be with a male companion—my father or one of my younger brothers.

I was both frustrated and enchanted with my new home. I loved the vast desert landscape with its hidden wadis and rolling dunes, the Bedouin traditions of hospitality, the history, the bustling ancient suqs. And the language.

I left Saudi Arabia to attend college in rain-soaked Oregon. I had decided to become a foreign correspondent, so I majored in journalism and French. I studied Russian as my second language. It was a different time; Arabic wasn’t offered.

When I graduated, I went to Cairo to begin my journalism career. I have a knack for languages and I picked up the Egyptian dialect by ear—in the streets, the markets, taxis. I worked with a tutor to improve my understanding. My Arabic served me well in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Egypt; but, it was conversational at best and I dreamed of being fluent.

My second year at Allegheny, the college began its Arabic program and hired a professor of Arabic and invited a Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant, both named Reem. I asked Reem Hilal, the professor, if I could sit in on classes.

Ahlan wa sahlan. You are welcome.

Both women assured me I belonged in intermediate Arabic. I wasn’t so sure. I spoke colloquial Arabic, but I could barely read or write it. Plus, we’d be studying classical Arabic, al-fusha.

My vocabulary carried me for a while. I soon learned being a student and being a student as a professor are two different things. When I was a student, I spent hours on my studies of French and Russian. I attended my language labs and conversation tables. As a professor, students come first; my own class comes last. I told Professor Hilal I needed to start over in beginning Arabic.

I love being a student. It reconnects me to what it feels like to be facing the front of the classroom rather than facing the class. As a student, I still get nervous when the professor calls on me to write on the board. I feel badly when I don’t do my homework.

I get to witness the stress of the students. After one exam, I walked into a gathering of classmates outside Ruter Hall. They were talking rapid-fire, a few smoking cigarettes. They were giddy with relief that they’d made it through the midterm. It made me remember the remarkable pressure to perform that students impose on themselves. I was once that student, minus the cigarette. Now I walk out smiling if I’m able to finish the exam.

In learning a language, I’ve found I learn about the people who speak it and their culture. I also learn about my culture and myself.

When I was a student in France, I quickly realized that I could translate my English into French and still miscommunicate by missing the nuances of the words, body language and culture. Americans are generally an exuberant, happy-ending-loving, bordering-on-hyberbolic people. We love words like amazing, awesome, fantastic. If it’s cold outside, I might say it’s freezing. Il ne fait pas chaud, it’s not hot, is the likely French rendering of the same weather.

As I was finishing this column, I ran into Salah Algabli, a Yemeni who is the current Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant at Allegheny. I asked him if he had a few minutes to talk about learning a language.

Sure, when you hear a language, you will get to know the people, the culture and, sometimes, the faith, Salah said. Learning a language helps you understand the deeper meaning of the words. You learn how to understand and express happiness, sadness, gratitude, friendship.

In Yemen, there’s an expression, taht al rasa, or al rasa, Salah said. It literally means “under the head,” however, if a stranger came to a village and said al rasa to the chief, it truly means “I am under your protection,” a cry for sanctuary that the villagers are bound to honor.

Salah noted that when he first came to America he would start his conversations with questions, as he would in his homeland. How are you? How’s your family? How are your children? He realized people would look at him strangely.

They felt like I’m a creepy person, Salah said. What might be creepy in America would be considered rude if he didn’t do it in his country. In Arab cultures, it’s expected to make such extended inquiries into the health of friends and loved ones.

Salah said he’s learned the American equivalent. “What’s up?” He now asks that one simple question.

The other day I heard a piece on National Public Radio by Michel Martin, entitled “Grief Knows No Native Tongue—but We Must Listen, Whenever It Speaks.” She wrote it in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. She noted that on the same Friday that members of the Islamic State group launched the attacks in Paris, a bomb killed people at midday prayers in Yemen and a suicide attack at a Baghdad funeral killed at least 18 people. There were two attacks in Beirut that killed more than 40 people last Thursday.

These attacks killed people indiscriminately, regardless of language, faith, nationality, gender or age.

In troubled times, language can divide or bind us.

When I think of the victims of violence, including the refugees, I remember the expression Salah taught me.

Taht al rasa. I am under your protection.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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Vocational: I’ll wear that badge with honor.

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

On more than one occasion since I arrived at Allegheny, a person has labeled my work, what I do, what I offer to the students and the community, vocational. Each time I hear that comment, I wince and bristle inside. It feels dismissive, disrespectful.

I am a journalist. After the most recent comment, I decided to do what journalists do. I decided to investigate. I interviewed professors at Allegheny and other academic institutions. I spoke with colleagues in journalism. If someone described your work as vocational, what would that mean to you? How would it make you feel?

It’s definitely a charged word, one professor said. It implies a vo-tech education. In high school, if you took vocational-technical classes, it meant you weren’t going to college. If someone calls your work vocational, it implies you’re not an intellectual.

Another professor voiced a similar opinion with one distinction. Particularly in a liberal arts college/tradition, if a professor refers to your work as vocational, it means that you and your work are not valued or respected. It implies that you are not a scholar, that you don’t do scholarly work. It doesn’t necessarily address your intellect.

These opinions reflected what I was feeling. Devalued, dismissed and disrespected. It implies I work with my hands not my head. I’m not a peer. I’m more like a plumber. I don’t belong.

I remember vocational classes in high school: auto repair, woodworking/shop class, typing, home economics. I would have loved to take a woodworking or auto repair class; at that time, girls weren’t allowed in those classes. I took typing and that skill has served me every day since I graduated high school.

On fall break, I was walking along the ocean with a dear friend, a graduate of Wellesley College. I told her about my experience at Allegheny and the vocational label some at the college attach to journalism.

Remember the origin of the word vocation, she said. It means a calling.

I beamed.

Exactly, I said. I often tell the students that I consider journalism a noble calling.

I went home and looked up the word. Vocation derives from Latin vocātiō, meaning a call, a summons. It first meant a call by God, particularly to a religious life in the Christian tradition. In the 20th century, it came to be associated with training, talents and a job. I’m not sure when the negative connotation attached to it.

I asked a journalist friend about the label of vocational and its blue-collar implications for our profession.

Of course it’s vocational, he said. We don’t think about journalism. We do journalism. When you teach journalism, you teach students to work for a story. If they fail, they learn to dust themselves off and get back to it. If that’s blue collar, I’ll wear that badge with honor. And yes, it is a noble calling. We sure don’t do it for the money. We serve our communities, our democracy and our world.

I come from a long line of blue-collar workers, of people who serve. Among our men, we have farmers, fishermen, an electrician, a tinsmith, a janitor, a state representative, soldiers and sailors. Among our women, we have farmers, a home economist, a nurse, teachers and a suffragist. And yes, there’s a woman reporter who preceded me by three generations, long before the vocation called me.

Journalists do important work. Teaching the next generation of journalists is important work.

Journalists are members of the Fourth Estate. They are watchdogs tasked with the duty of holding our governments and businesses accountable. Journalists risk their lives covering conflict abroad and corruption at home. They document history and tell the stories of a community, from the county fair and school board meetings to far-flung wars and areas of conflict and suffering. Journalists provide information that serves the public interest. A free press is a pillar of our democracy.

It takes smarts and guts to be a journalist—and to serve.

I followed in my great grandmother’s footsteps in becoming a journalist. I followed in my mother’s footsteps in becoming a teacher. I followed all my ancestors in a life of hard work and service.

Both my jobs are vocational. I’ll wear that badge with honor.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/outside-the-box-vocational-a-term-i-wear-like-a/article_602b069a-7ced-11e5-a8a6-9b43114d875a.html

 

Ditching Facebook for pen and paper

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

On August 1, I deactivated my Facebook account.

I choose not to have Internet at home. After years covering breaking news, I want the separation between my work life and personal life; between my office and home; between the digital world and real world.

This summer, I had 24/7 access to the Internet. I would start checking updates from Facebook friends then slide into reading posted articles and viewing ridiculous videos. I discovered I was spending an excessive amount of time on Facebook. And it didn’t make me feel included or connected.

I could see posts of people’s summer vacations, complete with photos of their kids. I was privy to news about upcoming surgeries, illnesses, deaths and losses. I realized I had a window into these people’s lives and a sense of intimacy that I didn’t have with them in real life. I felt sad.

I followed the plight of the Syrian refugees and the violence in American communities on the news and Facebook all summer.  It was too much.

I sent a note to my Facebook friends and let them know I’d be leaving. I encouraged them to send me an email or snail mail address so we could stay in touch. It’s been nearly two months and I don’t miss the daily trawling through posts.

In 2008, I joined Facebook at the suggestion of a high school student who is a board member for my non-profit, Isis Initiative, Inc. She insisted our organization needed a Facebook page to reach a broader audience in our modern world. In order to have the page, I had to start a personal page.

I’m a private person. I balked. The greater good, I told myself.  I signed up and logged in.

Soon classmates from my years in France and Oregon found me. Colleagues and fellow journalists I’d worked with in Africa and the Middle East “friended” me.

I valued my page as a resource, particularly for the journalism classes I now teach. Many of my professional contacts posted timely articles about news stories or ethical dilemmas or news of jobs and internships. I could send a quick message to colleagues and they would agree to Skype with one of our classes or accept an interview from a student.

I could also keep track of my former colleagues covering stories in Cuba, Liberia and Afghanistan. It kept me connected to my past and my journalism career. It didn’t keep me truly connected though.

I had a phone message from a friend last week. I didn’t even listen to it. I picked up the phone and dialed her cell phone number. I was sure I knew the news. My friend’s sister answered and told me their mother had died.

Vivian had been given less than six months to live three and a half years ago. She weathered the radiation and chemo. When the cancer returned, she endured another round of treatment. Not long ago, she gathered her family around the dining table. At 83, she told her family she would not take on the cancer after it reappeared. The doctors gave her two weeks to two months this time. She lived just two more weeks.

She lived to see her grandson marry in August. She died at home with her family.

My friend took the cell phone. As I listened to her, I could hear the catch in her voice when the sorrow slipped into her sentences. She said they had prepared for her mother’s death. She paused. Exhaled.

“You are never ready,” she said. A long silence followed.

Last weekend I was cleaning and I came across a stack of correspondence. Postcards from Alaska, Cozumel, New Zealand. Birthday cards, holiday letters and thank-you notes. As I looked through the stack, each note brought back a memory, sometimes a smile. On Monday, I discovered a postcard from Dubai from a former student waiting in my mailbox. It had the coolest stamp and a picture of the Burj Khalifa on the front.

Forget the zeros and ones of binary code. The high speed Internet connection hurling status updates through space. I cherish the emotions that vibrate through the direct connection of a voice over a phone line. I revel in the idea of a hand-written note that passes through many hands and countries or states to arrive at my doorstep.

Time is precious. I am touched when people take the time to write or call me.

For most of my life, I’ve been on the move. I developed a practice of writing notes and cards to far-flung family and friends. Since I left Facebook, I’ve recommitted myself to the practice.

I take a moment and a piece of paper. I sit under the stars or in the shade of a tree or at my kitchen counter before dawn breaks. I connect with my heart, my breath, my world. Then I put a pen to paper and connect with a treasured friend or loved one.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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If it were me

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

Returning from vacation this summer, I pulled off I-80 in Pennsylvania at a truck stop to get gas. I filled up the tank, paid in cash, then I went to the restroom before heading home.

Back in Meadville, I stopped to get groceries. No wallet. Hm. I realized I must have left it in the restroom. I had about $100 cash in it. My first thought: it’s a truck stop; a lot of people pass through. If someone did find it and didn’t return it, I figured he or she needed the money more than I did. My mom felt certain someone would return it.

One problem: I had no idea where I’d stopped.

I knew it was a Travel Center of America. I checked my odometer: 183 miles. I called the corporate headquarters. A kind woman suggested I could have stopped at Milesburg or Lamar. She called Milesburg with me on the line. Nope. I told the woman that I remembered that the restroom was by the ATM machine and the sodas.

“That’s Lamar.”

I called Lamar. Loretta answered the phone. “Yes, we have it in the safe. Josie, a waitress, found it and turned it in.”

A few days later, I drove back to Lamar. I wanted to meet Loretta and Josie in person and thank them. I had a hand-written note for Josie. I tucked some money inside. I’ve worked as a waitress.

Josie tried to wave off my envelope. It’s a thank-you note, I said.

She accepted it. I shook her hand. I thanked her again.

“If it were me, I’d want someone to do the same for me,” she said.

I spent a chunk of my summer swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, spending hours reading books for fun at the beach and listening to programs by the British Broadcasting Corporation on my shortwave radio. The story of the summer was one of waves of refugees arriving on the shores of Turkey and Greece, fleeing the ravages of war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last Thursday in our journalism classes, we discussed the photo of the body of a 3-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan, a refugee who drowned and whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey. We discussed the ethical considerations of running an image of a dead child. The students agreed it was a harsh photograph that reflected a harsh situation. The world needed to see it, they concluded.

It can be too easy to turn away from devastation and horror if it’s not impacting your life, your family. You may feel there’s nothing you can do. By the end of the summer, I didn’t want to hear the stories. My heart hurt. And the stories stirred images of my own work when I had documented refugees fleeing conflict.

One BBC report told of women arriving hungry and exhausted from their odyssey across the desert and the sea. The reporter described how the women used their last shreds of strength and will to push their children onto the trucks, to hurl them to strangers if necessary.

My mind instantly projected a memory, an image of a time when I stood at the Kenyan border watching Somali refugees appear in the shimmering heat, near skeletons in ragged clothes heading for the hoped safety of a refugee camp in Liboi. When the women arrived, they would heave their children into the back of the United Nations trucks. They wouldn’t have any remaining strength to pull themselves onto the vehicle.

In August, before classes began, I listened to a report on National Public Radio.

Ari Shapiro was in Izmir in southwest Turkey where Syrian refugees board boats at night to cross to Greece. He shared the story of a man who joined 40 others who piled into a raft made for 10. The boat sank. Many died.

Smugglers and local merchants take advantage of the refugees’ plight. Shapiro reported that going rate for the short boat crossing to Greece is $1,200 per person.

He then told the story of another man, a Turkish merchant, who lets refugees charge their cell phones at his restaurant. He offers them water and food, free of charge. He lets women and children sleep in his upstairs offices, even though it’s illegal.

“These are people who are running away from war, and if I put myself in their shoes, I would appreciate it if someone would do the same for me,” said Ali Demir, the restaurant owner in Shapiro’s story.

When I was a young photojournalist, I wanted to save the world with my photographs. In my years in Africa and the Middle East, I realized that it’s my actions as a human being while I do my work as a journalist that make the difference. And we’ve talked about this in our classes, too.

No matter where we live, each day we are given opportunities to show kindness, to offer assistance.

As Josie the waitress in Lamar, Pennsylvania said, “If it were me, I’d want someone to do the same for me.”

As Ali the restaurant owner in Izmir, Turkey said, “If I put myself in their shoes, I would appreciate it if someone would do the same for me.”

If it were me. A thought that inspires action.

From one person to another, a simple, tender gesture of kindness can make a world of difference.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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