Life as the new kid

“I guess when I get back to Roanoke, I’ll be able to cross Grandin Road by myself,” the 11-year-old said as we were riding our bikes to his school.

We were dodging college students walking to class, dodging other bicyclists on the sidewalks and roads, dodging Mass Ave. traffic that makes Roanoke’s Grandin Road seem like a back street in Mayberry.

A month into our tour in Cambridge, it’s been a big Back to School adventure for all of us, with the teenager adjusting to taking public transportation to his high school, which is slightly smaller than his school in Roanoke but with a wider array of diversity and, apparently, fashion. (“Guys in tight purple jeans!”) Now in his second week of school, he seems to hate us less now than he did at the start. A little.

It’s tough being the new kid, and not just for the teenager. There are 23 Nieman fellows in my class, the vast majority of whom are hard-news hounds, including many who have reported, filmed and photographed from such far-flung and weapons-slung places as Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gaza Strip.

They are not used to sitting idly or quietly on the sidelines, and sometimes I have a shy/hard/awkward time getting a word in at our meetings. I like, admire and get a chuckle out of every one of them, for they are truly hale and hearty fellows. But being a Southern newbie at Harvard reminds me of a four-way stop sign: In sweet ol’ Roanoke, everyone politely waves everyone else on, often to the point of standstill. Here, you go when you get the opening — even if it’s all at the same time. Sometimes I wish I had thought to take a course in group dynamics, along with my four other classes.

But hopefully I will learn how to strengthen my voice in a course called Public Narrative taught by Marshall Ganz, who as the architect of Camp Obama, also teaches community organization and campaign mobilization. I’m one of about 200 students taking his Kennedy School class, along with grad-student Ashley Judd, who reportedly wants to keep a low profile but is often the first to raise her hand in class.

I’m taking a music appreciation course called First Nights in the Gothic 1870s-era Memorial Hall, which looks like something out of Harry Potter. While I enjoy learning the cultural underpinnings of what went into the premiere of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, what really moves me is the comfort of sitting in that dark theatre for an hour twice a week and listening to a genuinely gifted teacher and musician. (Note to my classical-musical hound buddy, Angela: You have to come experience this class with me. Please.)

I hope to pick up a broader, deeper context for my  immigration reporting from a class that examines the history and current political climate around the question of legalizing the country’s 12 million undocumented immigrants. (Bonus: It’s taught by a professor who shared the Pulitzer with a group of Philadelphia Inquirer reporters that included our very own Mary Bishop!)

For a law school class called the Art of Social Change, we listen to world- class speakers expound upon human-rights and children’s issues. Last week, Bryan Stevenson, a MacArthur genius grantee and Harvard Law grad, talked about his exhaustive efforts to litigate his way to the Supreme Court so that (mostly black) 13- and 14-year-olds serving life sentences in prison may one day get out. Later, I was thrilled to find a Washington Post Magazine profile of him written by Walt Harrington, who is my favorite narrative journalist of all time. (Another fabulous Harrington piece I stumbled upon recently was an essay about why we write — to feel alive — from American Journalism Review.)

The Nieman events and classes are no less inspiring (OK, maybe not the part about learning HTML. . . ). We’ve heard from theater dynamo Diane Paulus one week after seeing her Shakespeare-meets-Studio 54 production of “The Donkey Show.” Tomorrow, we meet with David Gergen in a two-hour, off-the-record seminar.

At a welcoming reception last weekend, hundreds of people from the Harvard community came out to meet and greet us, including prominent journalists, authors and CEOs, former Niemans and current fellows of other Harvard programs (including Firle Davies, a heralded BBC reporter from Zimbabwe who talked about how relieved she was to have a year away from the threatening, middle-of-the-night phone calls).

I nearly stepped into it when I joined a conversation of Boston Globe journos who were bemoaning the Globe’s editorial on Teddy Kennedy, which began with the line: “Ted Kennedy was not a great man.”  I defended the piece, explaining that I was in tears by the end of it, but Globe columnist Kevin Cullen said he was so pissed that he stormed into his publisher’s office the day it ran. (It’s a Massachusetts thing; I wouldn’t understand.)

Not long ago, former Nieman (and one-time Roanoke Times editor) Mike Riley told me to enjoy the all-you-can-eat buffet that is the Nieman fellowship. While I’m still trying to find my sea legs (not to mention, at times, my voice), I have to say I’m loving every minute of being here, even the neighborhood yoga class that leaves me half-crippled; even the requisite three hours it takes to go grocery shopping because there are so many good places that I can’t go to just one. (Forget Trader Joe’s; I’ve since stumbled onto Russo’s, the world’s best bakery/produce market/deli, featuring rock-bottom prices on everything from beautiful berry pies to lemongrass and yard-long beans — just don’t get in the way of the Italian ladies when they’re sifting through the clearance rack.)

Wednesday Farmer's market in Harvard Square.

Wednesday Farmer's market in Harvard Square. I miss my zinnias at home (OK, so I've pinched a few starts of neighbors' coleus plants; what's a girl without a garden to do?).

I hope I don’t jinx it by writing this, but I’m starting to think that even the teenager is coming around, a development that makes me happier than all the $9.99 homemade pies in the world. That might have something to do with the tattoo (don’t freak, Mom; it’ll be small!) we promised he could get on his 16th birthday — if he makes the honor roll.

Or it might be the Thanksgiving trip to Jamaica we just booked on account of Tom’s theory that all money spent during the Nieman year should be viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime expenditure. “Monopoly money,” he calls it.

Which is a fitting outlook, as we begin to try to make the most of this year — passing Go as often as we can and splurging, every now and then, on a Boardwalk hotel.

A recent trip to Narragansett, R.I. Some people plunge easily into new things and places and ideas while others wait on the periphery until their sea legs are found..

Leave a comment


  1. bethmacy

     /  December 14, 2009

    Thanks, Michele! Hope to meet you in Roanoke sometime after we return this coming summer.
    By which point, I will be missing Russo’s (Watertown) and all things Cambridge terribly, I know!
    Nice of you to write!
    Best, Beth

  2. Michele Christian

     /  December 14, 2009

    Hi, I’ve enjoyed reading you blog, because I was born in Cambridge, (Mt. Alburn) and lived in Watertown/Belmont area! Until I moved to Roanoke! In fact I was in Cambridge a few months ago conducting research at Baker Library! Its a great city! I love the fact that it is a walking city! Keep posting those pictures!

  3. Thanks for the link to the piece on writing to feel. I find more and more that I write to understand. I love immersing myself in something I know nothing about, absorbing as much as I can and then writing up what I’ve learned so other people can say, “Wow, I didn’t know that?” or “That’s so interesting” or “That really makes me mad.”

    My short stint writing a column was super fun for this reason. I found myself writing to figure out what I think about things. It was fascinating.

    Unfortunately, the economy and the changing of the news industry is making that kind of exploratory writing I so enjoy harder and harder for daily journalists.

  4. bethmacy

     /  September 23, 2009

    Miss Cake, in fact I cannot believe that you have trouble getting a word in!!! 🙂
    Tell Kamran “Ac-TION” Khalilian to bring you up here and see us! Mussels are great here! 🙂
    Maybe not Quebec City great, but close!
    Love you – Beth

  5. Kate

     /  September 23, 2009

    If you can believe it when i go back to the north east even I cant get in a word edgewise – i guess I’ve turned a little southern too…you just have to barrell in – I’m so proud of you and I too am living vicariously through your blogs when i catch them. Great post!!

  6. your Southernhood is fine by me (thanks for the clarification !). the sweet tea phenom has always baffled me, but i guess that it works for .. folks who can’t stand the taste of tea !

  7. fraught

     /  September 18, 2009

    Oh, Beth, another fabulous post. I’ll have to revisit when I have time to follow some of the links! Especially love the Monopoly analogy, but it was all so wonderful. Live large!!

  8. bethmacy

     /  September 18, 2009

    am i southerner? hmmm. up here, they tell me i sound like one. and i’ve now been in the south (Virginia by way of Georgia) longer than i lived in Ohio, so i’m claiming Southernhood with these caveats: i like unsweetened tea, and i prefer “you all” over “y’all.”
    grits rock!
    thanks for writing!

  9. “But being a Southern newbie at Harvard reminds me of a four-way stop sign”

    But i thought you were from th’ buckeye state (tho’ i’m sure some would argue that Roanoke is an Ohio Suburb ..).

  10. bethmacy

     /  September 17, 2009

    hey moll! great to hear from you! so glad you’re finding your way around Roanoke — wish we were there for you but fully intend to see you a lot next year, maybe even your laundry. 🙂
    xoxoxo i’m not surprised that you’re loving it.
    love to your folks!

  11. Molly

     /  September 17, 2009

    hey beth, love the blog! (this is molly teague by the way haha) I’m starting to find my way around Roanoke SO WELL, it’s scary. I really wish you guys were here but I know that Boston’s an amazing place and will be the coolest experience for Max once he gets his feet under him and embraces it.

    Some of my friends and I are thinking of taking a train up North sometime this year, just for fun. Maybe Boston will be an option!

  12. bethmacy

     /  September 16, 2009

    Great advice, Kurt! It’s fun to tease Riley; I wouldn’t be here, though, without his recommendation! 🙂
    Thanks for reading. Let me know how YOU are; I don’t like that these blog conversations are so daggone one-sided!
    Love to Brook!

  13. Krt

     /  September 16, 2009

    So envious – keep blogging as some of us ‘back here’ are living vicariously through you….and don’t listen to anything Riley tells you!

  14. bethmacy

     /  September 16, 2009

    Oh no, not the CIA?!! I had no idea! 🙂
    Great to hear from you, Becster! Hope Molly’s doing well at Hollins…. Tell her to look up Jes Gearing, our tenant (who also commented on this blog, just below you) — she’s an MFA student and a poet, and I think they would hit it off!:)
    Love you guys —
    p.s. you know the drill: If Maxie ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy, specially Mama.

  15. Jamaica for Thanksgiving–now that’s a trip! Be sure to bottle some of the sun and bring it back for the Boston blizzard season though.

  16. Becky Hepler

     /  September 16, 2009

    Glad to hear Max’s is warming to the idea. Don’t sweat the tattoo, it just means he’ll never work for the CIA!?!?!?! I’m jealous of your cool classes – heck I’m jealous of Molly’s classes. I was born to be a student. As always you tell the best stories.

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