Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss

“Together they were going to heighten consciousness by dumbing down an already dangerously dumb constituency”

Mother’s Milk

Edward St. Aubyn

Last week, I read an insightful piece in the August issue of Rolling Stone by Janet Reitman about suspected Boston Marathon bomber Jahar Tsarnaev. Reitman tells a compelling story about Tsarnaev from his adolescents in Boston and his shift to radicalism in the facing of failing American dreams.

Many of you may have seen the controversy that emerged in in July regarding the cover which depicts Tasrnaev as youthful, child-like, and innocent. The general cry from the public was that Rolling Stone committed an insensitive act that insulted the families and the loss of life that occurred in April in Boston. On seeing this controversy on the local news, I immediately went to the store and tried to get a copy both because I wanted to read the piece but also because I wanted to defend Rolling Stone for their freedom to make such a decision with some of my money. I couldn’t find it in the Canandaigua Wegman’s. If they made a decision to pull the issue, they certainly kept it quiet.

This piece isn’t about what’s in the article beyond what I’ve written just above. I would encourage people to go read it to find out. It’s to say thank you to its Reitman, the magazine for opening my world a little more. It’s to say thanks for the children in the community who Reitman interviews and who made the choice to speak up to give us insights about their friend who is now accused of crimes and may very well lose his life for it.

While so much of today’s journalism and media is meant to please its readership. And what so many people seem to do is find the media outlet that best adheres with their world views. I’m certainly guilty of this—I read the New York Times and the New Yorker, but wouldn’t be caught dead with The New Republic. I listen to NPR but know that I’ve died and am consigned to the third circle of the Inferno if Fox News is on the TV. Kudos to Rolling Stone and its cover photograph for making the kind of thought provoking choice that asks its readership to reexamine their perception of an individual that the public has deemed guilty before the trial.

To my teaching friends and colleagues, I would recommend it as a compelling piece of journalism, storytelling, and a piece that would be nicely paired with a reading of Death of a Salesman or Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist.

The loss of life and of limb, heath and well-being is not something to treat with lightly. Our sense of national security, our deepest anxieties about the loss of security, these are things which we must acknowledge. But they are nothing when we lose our humanity, which means that we need to remember and acknowledge that our killers and our villains were once children, brothers and sons, students and friends. There can too often be in our culture a cult of compassion in which we attempt to say because this verges on insulting someone’s loss and tarnishes personal tragedy we cannot touch it. Or, as Edward St. Aubyn says in describing two of his characters, they “corrupted each other with the extravagance of their good intentions.” But this kind of thinking is a cult, because it both narrows and radicalizes what is right. While it’s intentions are humane, it block us from that humanity as well.

Seniors–Get out there!


It’s summer. Life is good. No homework. No required reading. No project to procrastinate on.

Junior year was good. You kept your grades up. Took advantage of your school’s college-level offerings. Did some work on those SAT vocabulary words. Did some college searches. You know that the Common Application is going to be posted any time. No worries!

What are you going to write your college essay on? The time you coached soccer to first graders when you were a freshman? Your super cool Spanish class trip to Costa Rica? The concert in band you got to play the National Anthem?

Please don’t get me wrong. These are all great experiences; however, for writing the topic of the college admissions essay, not so much. Lots of high school students have these experiences. One of the first lessons of a good application is that it shows the individualistic nature of the student. Don’t write about something that everyone else has done. Find something different.

When I urge my students to do this, they often push back and say, “I can’t climb Mt. Everest.” Unfortunately, my advice gets taken too literally. Of course, you can’t climb Everest, solve the assassination of JFK or discover some lost civilization in the jungles of Ecuador. The key is not the size but the unique quality of the experience, and most importantly, its ties to you and who you are.

My advice is to use August to do find such an experience:

  1. Take a trip someplace interesting. Again, you probably want to safari in Africa, but can’t afford to. So, find someplace local like a National Historic site, a state park, a state historic site. If you live in the Rochester area, like I do, try the National Women’s Hall of Fame or Mt. Hope Cemetery, or Ganandagan.
  2. See if you can spend a day at a business that has something to do with your major. Find out what a day in the life of your profession looks like.
  3. Visit a show at the local art gallery or museum. The Memorial Art Gallery has an exhibit on right now of Renaissance art.
  4. Try a sport or activity that you haven’t. Go sailing. Take a hike.
  5. Colleges and bookstores (more likely in the summer time than the colleges) often have interesting speakers. Go see someone speaking on a topic of personal, local or national interest.

Once you come back from any of these trips, take some notes. Write down physical details you remember. What observations did you have? Try to capture the sights, sounds, smells of your experience. What images stand out for you? Any interesting conversations? What’d you get out of your trip? What were your overall impressions? What surprised or shocked you?

Because essays need to be narrative and show the experience and you, these details can be the foundation for an interesting piece of writing about you and something you did to reveal something about yourself.

Get out there.