Last spring, I had the honor of seeing Maya Angelou speak at Jesse Hall. Between sharing stories and more comical poems and evoking overall sense of awe that I was breathing the same air as the great Maya Angelou, there was a point that she drove home as the common theme of her lecture: “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.”
She can explain it a lot better than I can; here’s a video clip of her explaining the meaning behind her words. The audio is out of sync with the visual, so try closing your eyes to make it work better.
After seeing her speak, I jotted this down in my beloved creative writing notebook, where everything important I hear goes for future inspiration/examination/interpretation. This summer I found it again while rooting through page by page for information on a book I’m working on right now. It struck me how perfect a motto like this is for a journalist, so I wrote it on the cover of my reporter’s notebook for this semester.
Saturday was my first General Assignment (GA) shift, and I found myself working on homework for the first hour. Then I was assigned a life story, my first obituary and first GA piece this semester. “Lucky me,” I thought sarcastically. I’m often talking to myself sarcastically.
After talking to the man’s son, a former pastor in Columbia, I found that the man I was writing about had a lot of interesting history in his family. Settling down to write, I knew I could get the story done in an hour, call for an accuracy check, and get it sent in before my noon-to-six shift was done.
Then the call came in.
Lainie, the ACE on duty, saw me, her only reporter, and gave me a huge story to follow up on. The body of a past MU student had reportedly been found in Floristell, and it was my job to confirm it. After juggling with calls from Mike Jenner, Rhonda from Vox, Kellie Moffit who wrote a story on the man over the summer, I had the parents’ number and the number of the detective on the case.
As I read Kellie’s Vox piece on the man, I remembered Maya Angelou’s words, “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.” Reading about how this man left behind his car, wallet and phone at first sounded like something I would never do. If you’ve watched the video clip, you know that’s what she warns us against; thinking “I could never do that” and dismissing it.
The first thing I did was call the family. After being told they weren’t speaking to the press, I texted my mom:
“Texting to say i love you and i will never run off without telling you. ____’s body found. Just talked to mother who wont comment but sounds brokenhearted.”
My mom texted back almost immediately:
“My heart is touched. Wish I was there to hold you in my arms. I cant imagine the heartache.”
When you look at my home page, you’ll see I pay homage to my family in one of the toolbars. If this isn’t a case where the tight-knittedness of my family is clear, I don’t know what is. Mom definitely got how hard this was for me to work on, especially since a girl I know from elementary school ran away from home. Her parents know where she is, though; that’s what makes it a bit easier for me to deal with. This man’s family, however, didn’t have a clue.
Following up on the case, I found out Floristell isn’t in any county in particular, so no county was taking responsibility on the case. The Fox 2 report cited the Lincoln County coroner’s office as the ones to identify the body using dental records. They also spelled the man’s name wrong.
After almost two hours of leaving messages on a Saturday at public offices, annoying dispatch operators, and not getting anywhere, Lainie and I called off the search. I went back to the life story with a mixed feeling of failure and relief.
Still, Angelou’s words were echoing in my head. “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.” I never dealt with a missing person case, especially talking to parents who can’t find their son and have absolutely no idea where he might be or why he left. Like Angelou said, a human being is going through this; that means it can’t be foreign to me, another human being.
In the end, I didn’t succeed. They posted an AP piece written that Saturday evening on the website. At the bottom it says “Missourian staff contributed to this report.” I don’t know if that means me.
In any case, credit or not, I learned so much from just that hour-and-a-half. Most of it is retrospect, but even this morning I got calls back from the people I phoned over the weekend. It was a good reminder that people do want to get the news out, and generally care about the same things.
I think I’ll always write that quote on my reporting notebooks.
“I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.”