Thomas Friedman on Lessons Learned After 20 Years of Writing Columns (Transcript)

I was 17 at the time. I confess, I did not know what a hooker was. And all the adults around me were laughing. My father explained it to me. My first sex education class. But most of all what I took away from Minnesota in the fifties and sixties that has influenced me my whole life was a strong sense of belonging to a community and a certain optimism about how a community can come together through politics and philanthropy to make people’s lives better.

To put it simply, I learned from Minnesota that politics could work. Indeed in 1971, the year I graduated high school, Time Magazine wrote a cover story with our governor Wendell Anderson on the cover holding up wall-eye, under the headline Minnesota, the state that works. When your senators growing up are called Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, and Hubert Humphry, when the big companies around you are called 3M, Dayton Hudson, Target and Control Data and they believe it is their obligation to build the Symphony Hall in the Tyrone Guthrie Theater, that corporate social responsibility was something they practiced long before it was ever invented.

When your Congressmen in your overwhelmingly Democratic district are two liberal Republicans and when your Congressman today is the only African-American Muslim in the US Congress, Keith Ellison, who is from St. Louis Park, you grow up believing that politics can actually bring people together, bridge differences, and solve problems. And that is the gift I took from my 18 years growing up in Minnesota. The belief in the possibility, not the certainty, but the possibility, that people will do the right thing, and the outcome will be win-win for everyone.

So if there is a consistent theme to my column, no matter what the issue or problem, is to show people the avenues and possibilities for compromise and win-win solutions. I know that things can turn out well because I saw it happen in my lifetime. So that’s why the title to this chapter and maybe to my whole career is always looking for Minnesota. Always looking for the middle ground. Always hoping to find the better angels from Beirut to Jerusalem to Washington, DC. But also not being surprised when I don’t. I know the world is not Minnesota. You cannot live for a decade in Beirut and Jerusalem and cover wars and massacres and believe that the world is Minnesota.

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I recognize that pessimists are usually right and I recognize that even more so after twenty years of writing a column. But I also recognize that all the great change in history was done by optimists. Those who saw the possibility for building win-win outcomes. And so I make no apologies for trying to buttress those people and shine a light on their efforts. The world has enough pessimists. I have the optimism corner, all to myself. And growing up in Minnesota in the sixties and seventies is where that came from.

My actual writing career started in two stages. The first was in high school at Saint Louis Park High in 1969, when I took journalism as a sophomore from our legendary high school journalism teacher, Hattie Steinberg. People often speak about the teacher who changed their lives. Hattie changed mine. I took her Introduction to Journalism course in tenth grade in 1967 in room 313 and I have never needed or taken another course in journalism since. It was not that I was that good. It was that she was that good.

Hattie was a woman who believed that the secret for success in life was getting the fundamentals right. And boy, she pounded the fundamentals of journalism into her students. Not simply how to write a lead or accurately transcribe a quote, but more important how to comport yourself in a professional way and always do quality work.

To this day, when I forget to wear a tie on assignment, I think of Hattie scolding me. I once interviewed an ad exec for a high school paper who used a four letter word. We debated whether to run it. Hattie ruled yes, that ad man almost lost his job when it appeared. She wanted to teach us about consequences. Hattie was the toughest teacher I ever had. After you took her journalism course in tenth grade, you tried out for the paper the echo which she supervised. Competition was fierce. In 11th grade I didn’t quite come up to her writing standards. So she made me the business manager selling pizza ads to local pizza parlors.

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That year though she let me cover one story, it was about an Israeli general who’d been a hero in the 6th day war who was visiting, giving a lecture at the University of Minnesota. I covered his lecture and interviewed him briefly afterwards. His name was Ariel Sharon. It was the first story I ever got published. We would meet each other many times after that.

Those of us on the paper in the yearbook that she supervised, lived in Hattie’s classroom. We hang out there before and after school. Now you have to understand Hattie was a single woman nearing 60 at the time, and this was the 1960s. She was the polar opposite of cool. But we hung around her classroom like it was the malt shop, and she was Wolfman Jack. None of us could have articulated it then, but it was because we enjoyed being harangued by her, disciplined by her, and taught by her. She was a woman of clarity, in an age of uncertainty.

We remained friends for 30 years, and she followed and bragged about and critiqued every twist in my career. After she died, her friend sent me a pile of my stories that she had saved over the years. Indeed her students were her family, only closer. Judy Harrington, one of Hattie’s former students remarked, about other friends who were on Hattie’s newspaper and yearbook. We all graduated 41 years ago, yet nearly each day in our lives, something comes up, some mental image, some admonition that makes us think of Hattie. Judy also told the story of one of Hattie’s last birthday parties when a man said he had to leave early to take his daughter somewhere. “Sit down”, said Hattie, “you’re not leaving yet. She can just be a little late”. That was my teacher. I sit up straight just thinking about her.

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