To Kathy Harris Atkinson, who taught me journalism basics that I still use today: Column
Kathy Harris Atkinson, a former teacher at Ripley High School, passed away recently, and if you ever enjoyed reading my columns, you have her to thank for it.
There aren’t many electives at the high school level to choose from, but that didn’t matter to me, because I knew when I entered high school that I wanted to be on the newspaper staff. Maybe because all the people I thought were cool were on the staff, or maybe because I liked the idea even then of short-form stories, but when the time came in my sophomore year to pick an elective, journalism was my first choice.
Enter Kathy Harris, who had been teaching journalism and English classes years before I got there (I have vague notions that she was teaching it when my dad was in school, but don’t quote me on that). And right away, she taught the fundamentals: how to write a good opening line, how to find the who-what-where-when-why, and how to write a catchy headline. They were the kind of fundamentals that don’t just stay with you long enough to pass a test, either: To this day, I still apply them to my writing.
So I passed Journalism I, and got promoted to the newspaper staff as assistant editor to Mark Parsons. I still remember Mrs. Harris giving me my first story assignment: Speaking to the new director at the Roane-Jackson Technical Center.
I won’t lie, it was a pretty boring story, as most biography pieces written by juniors in high school will be. But it was the start of two years of some of the best times in my high school life. In fact, I could easily split my favorite high school times into two places: the times spent during lunch in The Hallway with my buddies outside the Home Ec room, and my time spent in Mrs. Harris’ classroom.
Kathy Harris had a real way with teenagers. Not everyone does. Teens get a bad rap for being moody and defiant and disrespectful; and they are. But they’re also just trying to figure themselves out, and some adults just seem to have the patience to let teens do their thing that others do not. Kathy Harris was one of those people.
She had the touch when it came to teenagers: She knew when to let them alone, and when to reign them back in. When our newspaper staff got a little too sassy and a little too loud, she’d set us a few chapters in the journalism textbook to work on until we calmed down. We’d grumble and groan and pout, but we did our book assignment, and next time we’d get rowdy, we’d calm ourselves down before we got punished again. Lesson learned.
She didn’t get thrown by the capriciousness of teens, or their odd behaviors. I had Mrs. Harris for honors English my junior year as well, a class that easily had over 30 kids in it. In fact, there were so many kids, we ran out of desks and didn’t really have space to wedge extras in.
But someone had brought in bean bag chairs over the summer, and myself, Terra Sanderson, and one other person (I think it might have been Nicki Shaffer) spent the entire semester sitting on bean bag chairs stuffed between two filing cabinets. Mrs. Harris didn’t even bat an eye — just asked us if we were sure we didn’t want a desk, and when we said no, let it go and handed out the syllabus and let us figure out how to take notes while balancing textbooks on our laps.
Now I’m sure some of you can’t believe that a teacher would think that having three kids sitting on the floor for a semester was a good idea, and yeah, there probably are students you couldn’t let sit on a bean bag chair and expect them to learn anything, but that was the other thing about Kathy Harris: She didn’t treat every teenager like they were the same.
To her, we were all individuals, and some of us could learn fine while sitting on a bean bag chair, and some of us needed a front row seat in order to pay attention. And as long as we were being cool about it by not disturbing others and doing our work, she would be cool about it. Tell me how many other teachers would let that happen (and for the record, I got an A in honors English, so teachers, add bean bag chairs to your classroom seating set-up and see whose grades are better for it).
Kathy Harris taught me everything I needed to know to become editor of the Viking Press, from editing other people’s stories, to finding good pictures from our photographers, and how to lay it all out, old school, by literally cutting printed-out stories and pasting them onto layout sheets (I still have a stack of photos that are stuck together from the wax we used to lay the paper out each month).
And when I was all ready to assume the mantle of editor in chief, she taught me something else: humility and grace.
I was staying at home with a sick Grandma Kate when the announcement was made that I would be co-editor of the Viking Press my senior year. Not editor, co-editor, which felt to me like nothing short of betrayal because I hadn’t lived long enough at that point to know what real betrayal was.
I thought I had worked so hard, learned the whole newspaper game from top to bottom, and proven myself ready to carry that title forward on my own, and only to find out I had to share that glory? Teenage me, who thought the only way to shine was to be the only one in the spotlight, didn’t take that well — I left Mrs. Harris a note on her desk saying 'I quit.'
I regretted it immediately. It took me some time to work up my nerve to ask Mrs. Harris if I could come back, and bless her, she didn’t make a big deal about it, because mine wasn’t the first teenage overreaction she’d seen, and it wouldn’t be the last.
She just let me come back, and it didn’t take me long to see that having a co-editor was the best thing that could happen, because that was someone else helping to carry the load of the paper during senior year, when things are stressful enough. Maybe I could have handled that, but I think Kathy Harris knew me better than I knew myself back then.
So I spent the year writing my “Ranson Review” column and laying out the paper, and when graduation came, Mrs. Harris told me to keep in touch, but I didn’t. I’m not one for keeping in touch with teachers, because I’m never sure they really mean it. Maybe they say it to everyone, and I’d hate to bother them for years to come because they made an off-hand remark. But when Kathy Harris said it to you, she meant it.
There are countless numbers of her students who sent her papers in college for her to look over. They’d stop in to see her on visits home, and she’d help them with writing, with decision-making, and just giving them support, because yeah, they were adults now, but everyone needs a good mentor, a good mentor who saw you when you were moody teenage larvae and believed you could be a butterfly.
When I think back on it now, so many people I was on the newspaper staff with were inspired by Mrs. Harris to use those skills they developed in that first-floor Ripley High classroom later in life. My amazing co-editor, Meghann Slaven? Got her journalism degree and went on to work in public relations in Charleston. Roxanne Price was our newspaper staff photographer, and does marketing in Ohio when she’s not still taking great photos.
And that’s only the specific people my aging memory can recall — it doesn’t include the countless people who just learned how to be adults who can operate on a deadline and be self-motivated to get assignments done.
And here I am, 20-odd years later, still writing columns. From my Viking Press “Ranson Review” days of doing monthly music reviews to now, my “Ranson Ritings,” where I’m still reviewing things, but that thing is life.
And when I review the part of my life spent with Kathy Harris Atkinson, I am both joyful and wistful. Joyful, because I spent three years with some of my favorite people who I still call friends, doing something I loved to do, and was given the freedom to do it by Mrs. Harris, who understood that teens need some direction, but they also just need safe spaces to figure themselves out.
But wistful, because I should have told her that when she was here to tell her. I should have thanked her for seeing I would need help when I was too proud to see it myself. I should have thanked her for making me a better student, who could work independently and under a deadline (even from a bean bag chair). And I should have thanked her for never telling me what kind of writer I should be — she just told me to keep doing it.
So for all of that, Mrs. Harris, I thank you, and you will be missed by all of us who are better people, just because you let us be.