The Sick Days: Part 9

The press was powerful and intoxicating

Printing secret crushes fills a last-minute news hole, and opens a young reporter’s eyes to the power of shared community a newspaper can cultivate

By Shelley Page

After the latest issue of Monty’s Mouth was distributed, our junior high school’s collective of burnouts, jocks and nerds would spend five minutes smelling the paper it was printed on, hoping for a high off the pungent smelling mix of isopropanol and methanol — the duplicating fluid used in the ditto machine. This was the era when cooking sprays like Pam were huffed out of plastic bags and kids hung out near the pump while their dad filled the gas tank.

SICK DAYS LOGOWorking for Monty’s Mouth was like school-sanctioned substance abuse.

But I was drawn to the paper because of the intimacy it created. I liked when kids gathered to read about wrestling wins, near perfect foul shot percentages, out-of-town band trips, and overwrought student poetry that sometimes had to be flagged to the school’s guidance counselor because of the suicidal undertones. The Grade 10 journalism class at Montgomery Junior High School in Coquitlam, B.C., put it out. Every two weeks a different editor assigned and corrected stories and guided layout. We had to make sure we had enough copy to fill the issue.

The one and only time I was selected as editor, I was put in charge of the Valentine’s issue. I think I got the job because I was the girl, in the same way that daily newspapers assign a woman to cover Royal Visits (as I would find out at the Star). We are thought to have secret knowledge about the inner workings of failed romance.

At the time, I had a crush on a cute, smart, blond boy, who was likely a budding sociopath. I’d write him a sweet poem, and in return, he’d spit on my parents front window, bang his head against the wall to get his way, and go on to become a respected emergency room doctor because, as I would learn, empathy isn’t always in the job description.

I was keen to make my mark as editor. Along with the routine sports scores and shop reports, I solicited special love poems from students, mostly odes to dead pets and about-to-be-dead poets, like John Lennon. I was very proud of the issue — until the advisor pointed out that I had miscounted. We were one page short.

That day I joined a long line of journalists who struggled with math, hampering coverage of economics, the census, the school board, and page counts in Monty’s Mouth.

It was 10 a.m. The paper was to be printed next class and delivered with a thump in front of the gym at noon. It’s not like burn outs in faux biker jackets and girls with feathered hair were milling about to inhale the hot-off-the-presses paper. Still, I felt pressure. I was to be graded on my performance. I stared at the blank two-ply ditto master, then up at the wary face of my advisor. I knew I could write or type anything I wanted on the top sheet, and through a fairly simple process that involved purple wax, solvent and the ditto machine, could quickly come up with a back page. But what?

I thought of writing out by hand all the words to Meat Loaf’s Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad, which I knew by heart. In an act of desperation and social suicide I picked up the pen and started drawing hearts all over the back page. I managed to fit in about three dozen. Then I started drawing pairs of initials in each heart.

K.S. + S. W.

D.O. + A. P.

F.S. + L. D.

D. R. + A.Y.

I emptied my head of every secret crush, every quiet couple, I knew about.

I held off adding mine and the sociopath’s initials because I instinctively knew a journalist keeps herself out of the story. My advisor was nervous. Whose initials were these? But the clock was ticking. I’d come to understand that most questionable newspaper decisions get made on deadline.

It was a hit.

My slightly high classmates spent hours trying to decipher the meaning of the back page. Meanwhile, my friends wanted to hunt me down and stuff me in a locker for revealing secret crushes. Still, I couldn’t argue with the sense of community that the issue created, even if it was in opposition to me. And I kind of liked the notoriety, even if it gave me insomnia.

…And I kind of liked the notoriety, even if it gave me insomnia…

At Centennial High School, I also took journalism courses and worked on The Catalystschool paper. All this confirmed that I wanted to go to Carleton University to study journalism. I loved the process of the interview, drawing people out, and writing their stories to move readers.

I recall running joyfully down Sussex Ave. in Ottawa after an interview with a palliative care doctor because even though the subject of our interview (dying) was heavy, I felt that our exchange, his answers, were so worth sharing with others.

My mates from Monty’s Mouth and The Catalyst eventually became screenwriters, lawyers and even a top investigative journalist at the CBC.

And I’d elbowed my way into the East bureau of the Toronto Star, with a view of the 401 and a bureau chief who pinned a hot-off-the-presses centerfold on the wall beside his desk each month. Whether a school newspaper printed on a ditto machine or a girlie mag, the press was powerful and intoxicating.

The Sick Days continues in The Ex-Press Wednesdays and Sundays. To read past instalments, click here.

THE EX-PRESS, Oct 21, 2015.

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