Beth Macy

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.

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