Late last summer, I took my daughter to the doctor for her annual physical.
I was sitting there leafing through a waiting-room magazine when a woman with a boy of about 4 or 5 came in.
Moments later, a young man walked in carrying a toddler and joined them. He looked familiar, like a teenager I’d written a newspaper story about years earlier. Same height, build, dreadlocks. He looked to be in his early 20s, same as the teenager I’d written about would be.
But this couldn’t be the same guy, I decided. This young man, grinning and cooing at the baby, radiated happiness. He patiently helped the mom with the older boy, then pointed the baby at the waiting room toys.
The teenager I’d met was anything but happy. I found him in a last-chance school for former dropouts. His world revolved around his drug-addicted mother, whom he loved, pitied, protected and feared. Month after month, I interviewed him, hoping to understand why some kids drop out and others don’t. His mood swung wildly, from giddy to sleepy to seething. When I witnessed his mother’s volcanic temper erupt on him, I understood why. He had a minor arrest record; I feared prison lay in his future.
So, I decided this man in the waiting room couldn’t be him. Then he glanced my way, and a spark of recognition flashed in his eyes. It was him! He told me he was a tattoo artist now, and introduced me to his family. I told him how proud I was to see him, and to see the family man he’d become.
He said my story about him and his best friend, boys who grew up in two halves of the same inner-city duplex, changed him. He said it gave him hope. The fact that the Charlotte Observer sent a reporter to spend months researching his story made him see that he was important, that what he made of himself mattered.
I parted ways with him that day thinking, “THAT is why I’m a journalist!” It reminded me, yet again, of how much power there is in simply listening to people and sharing their stories.
I did that for nearly two decades as a reporter and, for the last two years, I’ve added my own thoughts as an opinion editor here at the Observer. Sadly, this is my last column. I’m moving on to become the digital communications strategist for the Duke Endowment, another pillar of this community which, like the Observer, seeks to empower citizens and strengthen our civic bonds.
It’s a great opportunity to dig deeper into the fascinating, ever-evolving digital revolution that’s overtaking society, even as I help advance the mission of one of the Carolinas’ most critically important philanthropic institutions.
I’m excited about that. But I can’t leave without thanking all of my colleagues here, and all of you wonderful Observer readers who have called, written or emailed over the years. Whether you reached out to agree or to object to what I’d written, I always loved the exchange of ideas.
If you find yourself questioning if newspapers matter anymore, remember my friend from the waiting room. As long as there are voices going unheard and wrongs that need righting, some curious reporter is invariably going to show up and start scribbling.
Keep supporting your local newspaper. I know I will. It has been an honor and a privilege to serve this one these past two decades.
Reach Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org.