Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
Exposure, Excitement, Inspiration
When The New York Times was at its former site just off Times Square, and before the days of computers, when reporters clacked away on typewriters in a newsroom the size of an aircraft carrier flight deck, my high school journalism class and I toured the building annually, visiting the layout department, the newsroom and the press room. My students most wanted to see the newsroom, for we received The Times in our journalism class daily, and they hoped to see at their desks many of the reporters whose bylines they were familiar with and whose work they admired.
The Times was our textbook. From it we learned every aspect of journalism, from storytelling to photography, from interviewing to ethics, from obituaries to copyediting. Yet we spent as much time discussing the articles' subjects and ideas as studying their journalistic features; and as much time getting to know the reporters through their writing styles and their hearts as through the content of their stories. After months of reading it, mostly at home, and talking about it daily in class, my students developed a love and respect for the The Times and its writers, so that by the day of our visit they entered the building revering the place, the paper and the people who worked there.
In the months before one of our visits, John Corry, a Times feature writer, had written a series of articles about life on one square block of Manhattan's Upper West Side. His Valentine's Day story portrayed some of the love relationships in the block's apartment buildings and brownstone walkups; another week's story told us what the mailman knew about the block's residents just from the envelopes they received.
The story in the series that affected my students deeply — and probably a million other Times readers — was Corry's follow-up to an earlier story about a crotchety, antisocial old woman whom he became concerned about when he didn't see her for several days. Going to her room, he discovered her dying in bed and called an ambulance. She died in the hospital, and knowing how alone in the world she was, he requested permission from her building's manager to go through her belongings. Who was she, he wanted to know. Would anyone want to know she had died, or care? Perhaps he'd find clues in her room.
The Times story John Corry wrote about this woman's life was accompanied by a photo he found among her belongings — a four-year-old girl wearing a pretty dress and standing between her parents. My students were awed, by the writing, by the unveiling of this woman's life, by what it told them about people.
John Corry had given this reclusive, friendless woman a life and a childhood. He had played a role, I am sure, in making my students more aware that behind every derelict, bag lady and panhandler is a story that humanizes them. They were children once. This humanization of the downtrodden and troubled, in our own town or across the world, is something The Times does every day. Information is its basic stock in trade, of course, but Times readers also know that, day after day, it also educates the heart. And I think doing that was more valuable to my students than anything else they learned from The Times or from me.
By the day of our Times visit that year my journalism students idolized John Corry. On the newsroom tour, several students gasped when they came upon a desk with the nameplate "John Corry." Corry wasn't there — most reporters are out working during school hours — but as she passed his desk one of my students ran her hand lightly along it as one would run a finger along furniture, checking for dust. But she wasn't picking up dust, she was picking up an aura.
My entire journalism class, as well as the senior staff, who still received The Times, were Corry fans. Annie Steinberg, a senior who hadn't been on that tour, loved Corry's work so much that I suggested she write to him and include some of the articles she wrote for the school paper. Her feature stories about friends and strangers were close to professional. Corry responded with an invitation to lunch at The Times.
"I recall wearing my college interview outfit," Annie told me recently by e-mail, "and ordering a Greek salad (my first), thinking the olives were grapes (they were not) and being surprised by the pit, not knowing how to politely dispose of it, trying to swallow it, etc."
During lunch, Annie asked Corry if he could use a summer assistant at The Times. He said that The Times had interns and news assistants, but that what he could really use that summer was a mother's helper, although it would actually be a father's helper. He would be living with his two young daughters in a Manhattan apartment and that's where she could really make a difference. And she did, watching over the girls, keeping them company, playing with them, taking them for haircuts and to buy clothes. When she began attending Boston University's six-year medical school in the fall, Annie visited the Corrys during her vacations home.
At The Times, several years later, I saw Corry waiting for an elevator, introduced myself and said, "I was Annie Steinberg's journalism teacher."
He shook my hand heartily.
"She saved my life," he said.