Archive for June, 2013

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The Year of the Unknown

June 11, 2013

I know that “spring cleaning” is a time-honored tradition in many households, including mine. However, since I had been a teacher and a track coach, spring brought far too many distractions to be able to focus on that much-needed chore. Therefore I always tended to do it in the summer, a perfect season with plenty of time to devote to the major task of purging my perpetually cluttered (and thankfully always cool) basement. I have since retired, but old habits die hard, and so I recently embarked on my annual rummaging through piles of boxes as I always had done.

I tend to keep everything, which sometimes leads to the dreaded “hoarder” label, but I prefer to think of myself as an archivist. If ever there were a need to establish a museum in my honor, the job would require no more than the unloading of various containers. Everything is already organized and sorted. I do realize the more likely fate for all of this stuff is a trip to the junkyard, but I don’t have the heart to be the one to execute that action, inevitable though it may be.

The Archives

The Archives

There are cardboard boxes of many sizes and shapes as well as plastic tubs of all kinds. Inside them is the history of my life. Photographs and slides and old black and white albums. Brochures and maps and souvenirs from trips. Boy Scout badges and kerchiefs and paraphernalia. Childhood artifacts from a button collection to school artwork to a complete Viewmaster kit. Peace Corps memorabilia from the Philippines. Bric-a-brac saved from my parents’ house. Trinkets made over the years by my niece and nephew. Letters and notebooks and assorted scribblings of a would-be writer. And newspapers of all sorts. It was there, amongst them, that I found The Unknown.

My 1987-1988 school year was the year of The Unknown, an unforgettable year to be sure. This is far less dramatic than it probably sounds. The Unknown, you see, was the name of the school newspaper I moderated that year at Pierrepont School.

The Unknown

The Unknown? What kind of name for a school newspaper is that, you may ask? And why would it be such a big deal? Good questions, and they will be answered in due time. But the beginnings of the story of The Unknown started long before 1988.

I think I have always been a journalist at heart. Newspapers have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I have lasting memories from my childhood of the Daily News spread out all over the kitchen table on Sunday mornings. I delivered The Bergen Record for many years during my youth. I keep folders of old newspaper articles of events both important and quirky, some now yellowed and crumbling around the edges. I could not part with copies of my high school and college newspapers (The Mighty Hi Times and The Setonian, the latter edited by the legendary Bob Windrem, recently of NBC news). Even now my morning would not be complete without the N.Y. Times and Star Ledger accompanying my morning coffee. And I mean the old-fashioned kind of newspaper, not the new-fangled electronic stuff. I want to feel the paper in my hand, hear the rustle of the pages as they are turned, smell the scent of newsprint. So when I arrived as Pierrepont School’s new eighth grade English teacher in 1985 and was asked to create some kind of elective, it was no surprise that I immediately seized upon the opportunity to start a journalism class.

Thus the Pierrepont Press was born. Or, more precisely, reborn. There had previously been a school paper which had become defunct, and I took it upon myself to resurrect it. In the subsequent years, the newspaper carried on even though the elective did not. It took on a life of its own, dictated by the interests and desires of the particular group of students involved that year. The paper was variously called the Pierrepont Press, Journal, and Post, but my favorite of them all was that year it became The Unknown.

The Best Staff Ever

The Unknown thrived under the direction of the best editorial staff I ever had. They had been very involved in the previous version, The Pierrepont Press, as seventh graders, so when their turn came to take over, they were bursting with new and different ideas about how to proceed. The enthusiasm of these students fueled the growth of this project. I was blessed with so many creative and hard-working kids who were open to learning all of the aspects involved, from photography to layout to production. My goal had always been to have any student who was interested participate in whatever way they could best contribute, to learn something about the process by which news is gathered and communicated to the public, and to have fun while doing it. And that they did.

There were the usual columns, of course, covering school news such as elections, dances, and special events. But there were also many creative and innovative ones as well. One such column, “An Inside Look,” asked an insightful question of both students and faculty. The editors did not steer clear of controversial issues; as a matter of fact, they felt those were the ones that were essential. “Write On” contained creative writing from staff members as well as the general student population, and a separate section called “The Young Edition” incorporated the creative writing of the lower grades. Something for everyone was included — “At the TV Set” (commentary about television shows), “What’s Your PIQ” (testing knowledge of the Presidents), the “Puzzle Page” (fun activities contrived by the staff), “Dear Dr. Sez” (an advice column with equal portions of satire and wisdom), “You’ve Got the Cutest Little Baby Face” (a contest identifying teachers’ baby photos), and “Cartoon Corner.” We sold them for twenty-five cents a copy to cover the costs of film and materials, and they sold out every single edition without fail.

And the name of the paper? This unique group wanted a departure from the ordinary — Press or Journal or Post just would not do — but no consensus could be reached, and after much discussion that elusive title remained unknown to us. “Hey, wait a minute!” someone suddenly exclaimed. And thus The Unknown was born.

Twenty-five years have passed since the final edition of The Unknown rolled off the press. The students I worked with are now grown, many with school-aged children of their own. I am still in touch with a few of them, I’m happy to say (Facebook does have some redeeming qualities). Several even turned out to be English teachers themselves. We spent so many lunches and after school hours together, working and laughing and arguing and brainstorming to create this most uncommon and exceptional experience. When I come upon these copies, my mind wanders back to those days, and a smile crosses my face. I know I will never forget this group and the joyful effort they put forth. The Unknown may have only existed in print for one year, but it will live on forever in my heart.

A Final Farewell, June 1988

A Final Farewell, June 1988