Four days into a hard-won internship at the Department of Education for a state that shall remain nameless, the Chief of Staff assigned me my first editorial. Only it wasn’t mine, it would be signed and therefore claimed by the Superintendent, and she had a whole lot more at stake than I did. So I contemplated this balance as I began outlining the editorial that covered a roundtable she’d hosted with a group of high school students from her state. The students had spoken with passion and zeal, demanding to know why their teachers weren’t paid enough and why they didn’t feel as challenged by their classes as they should have been. Now, I recognize that schools want to represent themselves well when sending students to meet an elected official, but I was immediately put off by the fact that this roundtable hardly represented any true student body. I would contest that over-achievers needs are different than their struggling peers, and to cater to one group alone starves the other. But as someone who was only there to take notes, I’d sat silently in the corner and jotted down the memorable questions and answers.
The next day I poured over their words and began developing my theme for the editorial. Now, obviously, I’ve never been elected to anything except for the editor’s position of my high school literary magazine, but I’d suffered through enough media campaigns to know that people were elected because of promises of change. With that in mind, I began crafting the students’ questions into one voice that spelled out the fact that the school systems needed help, and that there were two ways to do it: deal with the fact that higher taxes were necessary, or be smarter about the money already budgeted for the year. It challenged everyone from citizens to businesses to government to accept and rejoice in the responsibilities we all have in raising and educating today’s youth; and couldn’t we all agree that we all benefit from a society in which more members are prepared and productive?
As I finished my own editing I sat back and smiled at the screen, proud of my first piece, and proud that I felt like I’d really said something. My advisor read it and loved it too, and after gaining his approval I handed it off to the Chief of Staff for his review. Returning to the cubicle I shared with Jenny, an anal-retentive tree-hugging feminist, I relaxed for a moment and let the feeling of accomplishment soak in. She immediately began chattering on about some statistic that affected the ozone layer, and I nodded along, grinning like a fool, registering not a single word. I spun my chair around as I heard the chief approach (his hurried, heavy footsteps were very distinct) and smiled at him. But the happy-haze began to quickly burn away as I noted that no smile was coming to congratulate me. He slammed the paper down on my desk with his open hand spread across the draft that was marked from top to bottom in bright red.
“No, no, no!” he barked. I felt my back push hard against the chair, hoping it might open and hide me inside of it. “Have you lost your mind? This isn’t what I want at all. Did you read any of the samples from other writers?” he yelled. His cheeks were tinged with pink and a vein bulged above his right brow, filling out a couple of the lines on his too-young face. I shrank away from him as he dissected every word I’d been so proud of moments before. “And what the hell does this mean?” he exploded, pointing to a section I couldn’t see through the tears I was blinking back. Do not cry, I ordered myself. Not a single flipping drop. “Do you have any idea how many people this would piss off?” My fingers wrapped around the arms of my chair that had failed me as a hiding place. Somewhere behind my tongue I leapt up and met his fevered face with my own, raising my own hands and voice in protest.
“People elected her because of what she said she was going to change, not because they thought she wouldn’t piss anybody off,” I’d start, even and cool. “No one elects someone to ride the freaking fence. She’s here to lead, to help, and to make changes. Not everyone is going to like everything all the time. So if you’re not pissing anyone off it’s probably because you’re not doing anything at all. She got elected because of what she said she was going to do, not keep the same. She’s got four years to take a stand and follow through on the platform she was elected for, regardless of how it’s received. If she’s more worried about the next election than helping the schools then she’s a sorry excuse for a Superintendent. If she’s not pissing someone off then she’s not doing her job.” I’d finish, throw my papers in the air, storm out, and take the first flight back home. Instead, in the world beyond my tongue, I swallowed hard and tasted my own salt as he spun on his heel and left. I turned my chair slowly back to my desk and looked down at my bloody draft. The fact that Jenny wasn’t talking roared in my ears as I stared blankly ahead and tried to compose myself.
“He’s not usually like that,” Jenny said quietly as she placed her hand on my shoulder. As if she pushed some magic button I erupted into tears, weeping openly and bitterly in our cubicle. Ashamed, I looked up at Jenny through burning, drowning eyes and cried harder when I saw her own wet and shiny eyes, as if the recognition on her part that what just happened was really, really crappy validated my grief and made it easier to express.
We left early for lunch, and with no fore-mentioning, we didn't speak of the chief or the editorial. By the time we got back, I had myself back together and was ready to do my job: make the people of this nameless state love their Superintendent. As I put my bag down I glanced at the green post-it note stuck to the middle of my screen. “Check your email,” it said. I did, and found a brief, professional apology from the chief admitting he’d gone over-board, followed by an outline of how he thought the editorial should read. I shrugged to us both and began patting the students, the parents, and the Superintendent on the back as I redrafted the happy, shiny, fence-approved editorial.
On my final evaluation two months later, he noted to my internship advisor that I didn’t take criticism well, and that I should be more confident in my ability as a writer. Eight years later I still mull over what those two comments together could possibly mean, and I still don’t have a flipping clue. But I did learn one thing. Okay, two. First: I do not belong in the world of politics. And second, there's nothing wrong with taking the edge off of sharp words, but there is something wrong with swallowing the truth.
p.s. Whether or not it would've rocked the proverbial boat, I still like the first draft of that infamous editorial much, much better.