June 17, 2020

WU | Coming of Age as a Student Journalist

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Last week, I was going through some old google drive folders and found my journalism pieces from high school. Wow. I hope my future employers never see them. By my college-self’s standards, my high school writing ranges from barely passable to absolutely atrocious. While I can opine about anything in my column now, I generally try to stick to topics relevant to myself or the Cornell community. Back then, I could really write anything—from a comprehensive review of Princeton’s ice cream scene to an opinion piece titled “Technology or Technotogy” (yes, I actually wrote that) to a more serious piece on the racial divide in my school district.

In late 2015, The New York Times published this divisive news piece about my school district: “New Jersey School District Eases Pressure on Students, Barring Ethnic Divide.” In short, the article depicts our school districts debates about student stress management through a racial lens — with white “PTSA moms” on one side and Asian “Tiger moms” on the other. The article was attacked for oversimplifying complex issues about student stress and achievement to two stereotypes — Asian and white.

While the original article was problematic, my short response piece was worse. The most egregious part reads, “As a student of WW-P [my school district] for nearly ten years, I have never once felt such a race discord. One of the most admirable qualities of our district, ironically, is its racial diversity. Students with a variety of backgrounds get along, in complete disregard for each other’s race. The fact that we all have unique backgrounds serves as a unifying factor, not a dividing one.” The fact that I used the word ironically wrong is probably the least problematic part of this passage.

When I was in high school, we didn’t talk about present-day racism. Racism was confined to the glossy pages of our US history textbooks, denied anywhere outside of it. Journalism was the only class in which we discussed modern racism, but because we had never talked about it before, we didn’t know how to talk about it. In high school, I knew that all the white kids sat together and all the Asian kids sat together and all the black kids sat together. I knew it, but it felt like we weren’t supposed to say it, much less print it in a newspaper. So I didn’t say it, instead reacting to the over-simplistic and racialized way the NYT article had described us by painting our school environment in the most positive of lights. I, the kid who was once asked if she was related to Kim Jong Un while getting lunch, wrote that “students with a variety of backgrounds get along, in complete disregard for each other’s race.” How idealistic and how in denial I was.

Is it okay that I was so wrong? I don’t know. I don’t know who actually read my writing (probably just my journalism teacher), who was influenced by it and who wasn’t. But what I do know is that in the four and a half years since I wrote that piece, I’ve become more honest with myself and with others. I’m grateful that so far in my time at Cornell, I’ve learned significantly more about society than I have about biology. Learning isn’t epiphanous — it takes thousands of water droplets to create even a small puddle, but every drop creates a ripple.

I was young and naive when I was in high school, as I am young and naive now that I am in college. In another four years time, I might reread some of my pieces from college and wonder, “What the hell was she saying?” But then, again, I will be grateful that I am four years a more knowledgeable person.


Lei Lei Wu is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Her column Get Lei’d runs alternate Mondays this summer.