Article and photos (unless otherwise specified) taken by Patrice Johnson
My dashboard clock read 7:26 a.m., 15 minutes early for my interview with Elizabeth Cyr and just enough time to buy a much-needed cup of coffee. Cyr (pr: sear), an 18-year veteran English teacher and the journalism/yearbook adviser had recently received MSU’s prestigious Golden Pen Award. This big news, no doubt, would be better explored with a dose of caffeine.
But on my entering Cravingz, four journalism students were huddled around a table, holding what looked like a meeting. Odd. Teenagers and early mornings repel each other like matter and anti-matter. But here they were: the editorial board for Uncaged, Stockbridge High School’s print newspaper.
“We’re wrapping up a budget meeting,” Editor-in-Chief Emma Lockhart explained, managing, in part, to concealing her mild annoyance at my interruption. The fifth board member, Anna Baird, had apparently left for school.
Photo-taking ticked away the last of my spare moments, and soon I was trooping, coffee-less, down the school’s west wing. Petite, strawberry-blonde Cyr stood with her back to the door. She appeared to be mentoring a bevy of early-bird students, with her right hand wrapped tight around a cup of iced coffee. After she broke free, I congratulated her on receiving the Golden Pen Award. Would she tell me about it?
Cyr’s brown eyes turned pensive. “Everything I teach in Uncaged, I teach in Yearbook,” she said. “Kids are busy, so this way they can float in and out of class as time allows.” She flagged a student forward and asked him to talk about a design wall.
Tall and dark-haired, Eric Johnson pointed out the storyboard’s layers and color-code system. “It’s online, too,” he said with self-assurance that seemed to surpass his years. “It displays each page of E7–that’s Edition 7, our last Uncaged issue of the school year.”
Yes, but what about the Golden Pen Award? Trying to interview Elizabeth Cyr was beginning to feel like tossing a lasso at a shape-shifter. The PA clicked on and all faced the flag to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Announcements followed. Then student Johnson moved to a podium, and the scene transformed into what could pass for a corporate business meeting.
The student leader projected a time-management program onto a screen and assigned point people as he ticked through outstanding tasks. His classmates , simultaneously accessing the data on their laptops, responded like professionals. Nathan Myers, Kali Roskowski, and others then took turns at the podium, and presentations clipped to a close.
Cyr announced the receipt of a silver award from Columbia Scholastic Press Association (CSPA). This distinction notched the journalism/yearbook award count for the 2016-2017 school year to 40, yes, forty. But Cyr seemed almost nonchalant about the unheard of feat and, instead, beamed at the judges’ critique.
“We fell just 31 points short of the gold,” she said, “and listen to this. It’s collegiate level feedback.” She read comments from a judge who had found room for more variation and grip in lead sentences. “I watch you guys crack open your chests like you’re thoracic surgeons,” Cyr advised. “Now write about it. You must get the reader at the lead. Draw them in with something they can relate to, someone they can love or despise.”
Students set to work, and a drone of collaboration filled the room. Good. Now maybe Ms. Cyr and I could get down to brass tacks and discuss the Golden Pen Award. But rather than taking a seat, she called five editors, graphics designers and reporters to the table while she tore off to counsel a student in need.
The conversation progressed from introductions to the challenges that yearbook and journalism students face. Soft-spoken Sarah Barney, Yearbook Editor-in-Chief, noted, “I’ve learned how to take criticism. You become a better person and grow from it.”
“I realized you can’t take it personally,” Journalism Creative Editor Zabrina Yannella added, her long, auburn curls jouncing to the flurry of her fingers.
Chic and blonde Shelby Zeigler, a remarkably poised senior and Yearbook Editor-in-Chief, paused to consider. “Elizabeth does a great job with constructive criticism because she wants the same end goal as I do. She teaches us how to clash with others without drama.”
“We’re definitely not babied.” Staff reporter Madison Gee-Montgomery smiled. “She treats us as adults.”
“Elizabeth guides us,” Zeigler agreed, “but not down a narrow path.”
Yearbook Editor-in-Chief Cheyenne Cordero, who had been listening intently, piped in, “Journalism and Yearbook classes all share a bond.” Someone compared their camaraderie to that of battle-weathered soldiers. Everyone chuckled.
“It’s the best thing in the world,” Gee-Montgomery added with quiet pride, “to hear we just won a Pacemaker.”
A tone sounded, and students began to exit. Ms. Cyr plopped down and slid a stack of information about the Golden Pen Award across the table. “I’m glad you had a chance to meet those students,” she said. “Shelby recently won MIPA’s prestigious All-State Award, and Sarah’s an accomplished graphics artist.” The editors-in-chief were seniors, she explained, and all were doing exceptional work in their fields. As we chatted, she called up the MIPA website and jerked in surprise at a story featuring her receipt of the Golden Pen (https://mipamsu.org).
The next class was beginning to file in. Time leave.
During the drive home, a nagging puzzlement settled over me. Kids meeting in Cravingz before school, corporate-style presentations, collegiate-level reviews, an atmosphere zinging with passion, and teenagers carrying themselves with Socratic aplomb—what was going on? Then a thought dawned.
Maybe Elizabeth Cyr’s obvious aversion to discussing her achievements was as it should be, because the heart of the story lay in what was being measured, not in the instrument of measurement, the Golden Pen.
Outside Socorro, New Mexico, the VLA (Very Large Array) of radio telescopes dots the white-sand desert. Each of its 27 telescopes stands as an awesome entity in its own right. But the strength of the VLA comes from the synchronized performance of its parts. So, too, with Cyr’s classes. Individual achievement was giving rise to team success; and team success was sparking individual achievement. The cycle that Cyr was nurturing struck a balance between teamwork and individual growth. The dynamic between one and whole was propelling a sort of yin-yang upward spiral. Real projects and real demands were guiding students to overcome obstacles as a team. In the process, these students were gaining the courage and insights to seek out and pursue their own dreams.
Now back home, I set Mr. Coffee to brew.
- SHS journalism teams came home from MIPA state competition earning a record 90 individual awards.
- Uncaged Student News earned 5 first place awards, 12 seconds, 3 third places and 20 honorable mentions.
- The Panther Yearbook team grabbed 13 first place awards, 7 second places, 9 thirds, and 21 honorable mentions.
- The Uncaged Online web team earned a GOLD in state competition, and the newspaper won the coveted SPARTAN.
- Announcing: Shelby Zeigler was named to the 2017 All-State Student Journalist Staff.
- The Panther yearbook team is awaiting results of their Spartan competition.