Tomorrow (that is, yesterday, seeing as how I’m writing this on Friday to post on Sunday–all clear?) I will take (or have taken, and that’s the last time I’ll mention it) my son on what is called an “admissions tour” of Rutgers University, my alma mater. My son, a high school junior, is just entering that period where one starts to consider colleges. This will be our first such tour. No doubt, there will be more.
Rutgers, which has gotten some national attention lately for having a successful football team (apparently, until last night), is where I learned how to write. And that didn’t take place in the classroom, by any stretch of the imagination.
For the better part of four years, I was a reporter and editor for the Rutgers Daily Targum, a five-times-a-week publication that covered the university and its populace–there were, and are, 50,000 people, students and staff, on campus at any given moment–as well or better than any “professional” newspaper could. It was run entirely by students, all volunteers, and I easily spent more time in the Targum (it’s a Hebrew word that means “interpreter”) office than I did in class, or at my dormitory, or for that matter, anywhere else.
I have never, in the 27 years since graduation, had a better time doing work. It hasn’t even been close.
When I arrived at the office the first time, a timid freshman who had been editor-in-chief of his high school paper (I later found out that everybody at Targum had been editor-in-chief of their high school paper), I was immediately put to work editing Associated Press copy from an honest-to-goodness wire ticker that made a LOT OF NOISE in one corner of the newsroom. When I asked the editor who assigned me that task for some guidance on how it was done, she said, “we have to fill up two columns on the side of the second page; figure out what goes there and write some headlines.” We’re throwing you in the pool, kid. Hope you know how to swim.
Walking in that door, on the fourth floor of the Student Center, I was an 18-year-old who had never actually composed on a typewriter in my life (this was the stone age, when computers were something called “Univac,” which took up whole rooms and spit out strange punch cards that nobody on the planet understood, but some pretended they did). My high school newspaper published once every blue moon, ready or not, and I’d always had plenty of time to write out any of my articles longhand on loose leaf paper, and type them out (using an ancient potion called “Wite Out” to cover mistakes) later.
There was no such time on a daily newspaper. Once I became a “regular” on the Targum–work was unpaid, and completely voluntary, so only the seriously dedicated maniacs showed up every day–I had to learn how to sit behind a keyboard and translate the information I wanted to convey into something that was at least ostensibly understandable, and if there was extra time, interesting.
I wrote about student housing problems–the place was overcrowded in those days, and having grown up in New Jersey, I understood overcrowding–, crime stories, movie and music reviews, administrative shake-ups. I interviewed the governor of New Jersey as he rushed down the stairs from an interview at the college radio station to a waiting car, and all I remember about it is that Brendan Byrne sounded a lot like Groucho Marx. Eventually, I was elected–we elected our editorial board every year in a ritual called “Caucus” that everyone relished and dreaded–one of three News Editors, and the year later, Arts Editor.
That gave me the opportunity to learn layout and assign articles and reviews. I edited copy. I learned how to say things more concisely–not that you’d know it by how I write now–and how to be clear. What worked and what didn’t. Doing that every day school was in session for four years increased my ability and my speed. I got better, faster. Eventually, that experience led to a summer internship at a professional daily paper, and a year later, to my first job writing for the Passaic Herald-News.
The last thing I wrote at college was a short introduction for one of the speakers at my class’ graduation ceremony. I introduced the invited speaker, John Kenneth Galbraith. He was 13 feet tall and looked like the United Nations Building. I was 5’5″ on my best day, and when he reached out to shake my hand, his grip encompassed my entire arm. I think he shook all of me, like in a Warner Brothers cartoon.
I wrote the speech on one of the Targum manual typewriters, on yellow copy paper. I wrote it two hours before graduation, because I had found that I work best under deadline pressure (and because I was too busy having a good time during Senior Week to think about it until then). It had been a long, but immensely satisfying, journey.
I hope that wherever my son ends up studying, he finds something he’ll love half as much. He’ll take his first steps in that direction tomorrow. Or yesterday.