May 5, 2009 / Whitt and Wisdom

Do advisers aim to make great books or great people?

Written by Anne G. Whitt, MJE

Sally Dotson lit a fire that still burns inside me more than 50 years later.

That marvelous lady picked me to run a store in our fourth-grade classroom. She blocked off one end of the cloakroom and installed a Dutch door for my counter. She provided a cash register and shelves for display. I managed the store, inventory, sales and books. When I finished work early, I would slip into my little store to dust or straighten inventory. Other times I would leave school to walk downtown to the wholesale with money tied in a handkerchief. I chose the kinds of candy, papers, pencils and erasers to sell. I cradled the inventory next to my heart as I strutted back to school.

Other students took turns clerking or accompanying me to the wholesale, but it was my responsibility. I had to make the store earn money so Mrs. Dotson could buy extra things for our amazing classroom.

No other opportunity to manage a business came my way again until I discovered journalism. The business aspect has been one of my favorite parts of yearbook. Yes, I love to find stories, and I love to find new ways to present the stories, but I love, too, figuring how much money we need and how to raise it. Mrs. Dotson gave me that love for business.

I loved that store. I loved school that entire glorious year because of that store. I knew the money was not fake. I knew the circumstances were not fake. If I failed to raise money, the whole class suffered.

Someone might say she took advantage of me by placing such responsibilities on a 10-year-old girl. I see it in a different perspective. She gave me a tool to discover what I could do. I still treasure the image of her face, the three tiny parallel lines that pointed to her big twinkly eyes, and the sound of her soft voice.

Today friends sometimes critique my habits. My instructive friends tell me I focus too much on the quality of the book when I should focus on the quality of staff members because my job is to teach students, not print books.

Then I think of Mrs. Dotson, and I think of the management skills students have developed as they worked on yearbooks.

For example, at the end of Rachel Sitter’s term as editor, she had special shirts printed for distribution day. The shirts read, “You think you know, but you have no idea.” When students questioned the slogan, Rachel said, “We started with blank pages, totally blank pages.”

She was right. Every staff starts every year with totally blank pages. These pages must not resemble last year’s pages, even though at least half of the people are the same as last year, and they do basically the same activities. The same people have largely the same curriculum, the same teams, the same fine arts programs and mostly the same leaders. The staff has to develop a plan to present all this sameness in a unique way. At the same time, this same staff also must contrive a plan for raising the money to publish the pages.

The task is great, and it is real. The money is real. The parents who call in are real. The calls from MTV or ABC or Washington are real. In dealing with these real situations, the staff learns to manage.

Wendy Sanchez, an editor, had learned to manage. In her senior year, Wendy was flown to Washington, D.C., to be interviewed as a finalist in a specific scholarship competition. Back at school, she reported, “Every question they asked, I would think back to what we would do in Room 103, and I always had a good answer.”

In other words, Wendy had learned to manage. She could transfer what she had learned from publishing to other situations. She got the scholarship. It paid all her tuition, books, fees and food plus $1,000 a month in spending money.

Incidentally, she found that scholarship on her own.

I said Mrs. Dotson’s fire still burns, and I meant it. When I retired after teaching 42 years in high school and 33 in college (concurrently), I immediately started my own magazine. I had to keep doing what I had learned in yearbook and from Mrs. Dotson.

Recently, as I worked in the community with my magazine, I ran into Nicole Laguna of the 2000 staff. She said, “Remember how much I liked all that stuff we did?  Now I have my own advertising agency.”

We do not just make books. We use real publishing experiences as tools to develop our students. At the end of the process emerges a monument to those students and a one-run edition in the annals of the world.

Anne G. Whitt, MJE

Anne Whitt, MJE, is a retired yearbook adviser who taught at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Fla., and at the community college level. She was named a JEA Distinguished Adviser in 2000, and the yearbook earned state and national honors throughout the decades that she taught.