Sometimes, your path can be set early

    I’ve always been interested in how people choose to do what they do for a living.
    In my own business, a lot of people have a childhood vocation that grew into an adult career. They started putting together a neighborhood newspaper when they were 9 years old (that seems to be the magic age for that kind of thing) and loved it so much they never really stopped.
    That wasn’t me. In fact, my career choice is one of the weirder stories I’ve heard about how somebody found a career.
    Let’s put it this way: Had I been a better high school football player, chances are you never would have met me. I would have ended up as an English or history teacher God knows where.
    As it was, I sucked at football. I stuck with it all through high school, but spent most of that time ridin’ the pine. I started two games my junior year and I didn’t finish the second one after blowing a goal-line scoring opportunity (I was an offensive tackle).
    And four of my five coaches were abusive jerks (the worst was the line coach). They made me feel pretty worthless, at an age where that’s a pretty awful thing. That line coach never managed to learn how to pronounce my name, which is a pretty subtle form of disrespect.
    When it was all over, I decided I was going to have my say. I put a long letter in the school newspaper about what a sham the Columbia Heights football program was, how it was run mostly for the benefit of a few stars and the rest of us pretty much were used as tackling dummies, and psychologically abused to boot.
    I went to a very jock high school, so I knew I’d poked the bear. But I didn’t expect the reaction I got.
    I was a hero for three days.  I was the talk of the school. People in three different classes spent a whole hour arguing over it, and I had people defending me I didn’t even know.
    I never got an official response from the coaches, but be assured I got a response.
    My letter came out just before Thanksgiving, and my school had a traditional Thanksgiving assembly. Part of that, every year, involved the teachers giving gag gifts to certain notable figures in the school.
    The morning of the assembly, the vice principal called me down to his office and asked if I’d be there. I told him I would be; if you didn’t go to the assembly, you had to go to a study hall. He told me, “Santa Claus has something for you,” so I knew something was up.
    Came the assembly, the gym was packed (my high school had 1,500 students). The teachers’ skit started, performed by the volleyball coach and the tennis coach.
    They called me down, I stood up and the applause was thunderous. I thought I’d imagined it, until the newspaper advisor commented on it later.
    “We all know about Tom’s well-developed writing ability,” the volleyball coach said. Everybody chuckled, and knowing I had to be a good sport, I chuckled along.
    “So we’ve decided to give Tom this special roll of stationery and matching pen” —a roll of toilet paper with a pen taped to it—“because Tom, like all seniors, knows that the pen is mightier than the sword.”
    Dead silence. I was probably the only kid in the gym that got the joke, and I doubt a lot of the adults did either. I made a show of chuckling myself.
    In fact, you probably don’t get it, because it’s pretty obscure. “Sword” is an archaic anatomical slang term. I knew that only because I had heard my Dad, a World War II Marine, use it once.
    I remember thinking, “They can’t mean what I think they mean. They wouldn’t do that to a 17-year-old kid.”
    But then, after the day was over, I was standing alone at my locker when the German teacher, whom I didn’t even know, approached me.
    “I want you to know that I think what they did was terrible and I had no part in it,” she said.
    The light bulb went off. My God, I thought, they did mean it that way.
    Now, obviously, that was over 40 years ago and the memory still warms.
    Up to that time, I wanted to be either an English or history teacher. I always was a good writer and am still a huge history geek.
    But I figured I’d take a look at this journalism stuff and luckily enough, found a career I have loved.
    For years, I thought I remembered it only out of ego. But not too long ago, I realized what the real kick had been: I had spoken truth to power and it felt really, really good, even ignoring that it made me a hero.
    I’ve gotten paid to do that a few times in the decades since, and that kick never fades. I’ve been lucky.
    Living well might be the best revenge, but having a career you love ain’t bad either.
Tom Pantera is the news editor at the Wauneta Breeze. He has a passion for storytelling, obscure trivia and family. Email: breeze.editor@jpipapers.com

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