The first lesson an editor taught me

Update below

My students are all stressed about finding jobs right now. This is how I got my start in journalism.

After I graduated from college, I taught 7th & 9th grades — English and journalism — at what was then Knox Junior High in Salisbury, N.C. I wasn’t very good at it, but it wasn’t my planned career; I was going to work for a two years and then go to law school. Because I went to a sterling little school that no one had heard of, I figured I needed some “real life” experience to burnish my resume for Harvard Law.

It gave me enough “real life,” all right. After a year, I quit and moved to the beach with a couple of college friends, both of whom were going to med school in the fall. When they moved out, I ran home to Raleigh, and my father helped me get a job working construction at Nello-Teer. We were building a mental health facility, and it was fun,  although I didn’t get paid much. We worked outside doing labor, tying rod, laying concrete, drilling studs.

Then, one day in February, the temperature didn’t rise about 17 degrees. There was no inside to seek shelter in. That night, after I bitched about the cold, my mother sat me down.

“What would be your dream job,” she asked.

“Writing for the New York Times book review,” I said without a trace of confidence. I was an English major though, so maybe I was qualified.

“So what do you think you need to do to get there?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Get a job working for a newspaper, I guess.”

“OK, start applying,” she said, and that was that.

I applied to at least 25 papers. This was before the Internet and email. Editors actually accepted blind applications and occasionally responded. In May, I got an interview with the Monroe Enquirer-Journal. I liked the editor — he was funny — and he seemed to like me. I might have gotten the job, but then I handed my writing sample to him.

The editor glanced at it and then looked at me. “You don’t type?”

When I said not that well, he put the hand-written story into a file with my application and said, “Go home and practice your typing.”

I was humiliated, and I went home and practiced my typing. It was the first lesson an editor taught me.

In June, the editor called me and asked, “How is your typing?” I said something to the effect that I was better than Rose Mary Woods. Thank god, he laughed.

“Well, the boy we hired, we just fired,” he said. “Come back and let’s see what you can do.”

I got the job. It paid $125 a week, about what I earned as a common laborer and less than I got teaching. But I wasn’t harassed by hormone-driven 13-year-olds and the office was warm.

And it was so much fun — a different adventure every day! — it took me 36 years to get out.

Update: Some great comments about other experiences with typing were made on my Facebook post.

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