As a journalist, I’ve spoken in front of large audiences. Business executives. New mothers. Heck, I once appeared on the Today show wearing a leopard-print trench coat and talking about anxiety. But no audience scared me quite as much as 30 sweaty teenagers.
A friend who runs an international summer camp invited me as a guest speaker charged with talking about food journalism, using junk food as props.
The day was humid. The mood was antsy. Several kids were rapping in a corner of the grassy quad; a few others were performing a distracted version of the Macarena. My friend told me to grab a microphone, hold up a package of Twinkies, and invite any takers to my lecture. “All the junk food you want! Plus air-conditioning!” I squeaked.
About 30 of us settled into a classroom. When I went around the room asking the students why they wanted to write, a few shrugged, several said they wanted to write for newspapers, and others just wanted to try the snacks.
I broke open several packages, asking each student to write a short review about one of the treats. “You’re on deadline!” I called. “Five minutes!”
“Can we use any words we want?” one asked, wide-eyed.
“Of course,” I replied, pleased.
“You mean we can be creative?” another said.
“Absolutely!” I replied. “Imagination is key.”
Another girl raised her hand. “Is it OK to be honest? Because these chips are kind of gross,” she giggled.
“Yes, that’s the most crucial part of journalism: honesty,” I replied. Imagination and honesty—could it get any better?
The kids sampled their snacks, wrote reviews and read them aloud, clearly proud of their words.
As we walked back to the Quad, a teenager from China, took me aside. “You actually get to write—for work?” he murmured, awestruck.
“I do,” I said.
“But that sounds like”—he searched for the English word—“a hobby.” I could see my counselor friend who invited me up ahead, grinning.
“Well, I’m lucky,” I said. “It usually does feel like a hobby. But it’s work, too. It’s my job.”
“You mean, you get paid money to do your hobby?” he asked.
“Yep. I guess I do,” I replied.
“That’s amazing,” he said, bounding off to find his friends.
He was right. I’d never really thought of it that way before—but it is.
It just took a teenager and a few packs of Twinkies to remind me.