The Best Journalism Teacher I Ever Had
Though she was most famous for her films and books, Nora Ephron, who died at 71 in 2012, actually started her career as a journalist in high school in Beverly Hills. Ephron graduated from Wellesley College before beginning her career as a journalist at the New York Post. She then went on to write about the 1970s women's movement for Esquire.
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The best teacher I ever had was named Charles Simms, and he taught journalism at Beverly Hills High School in 1956 and 1957. He was young, cute in an owlist way — crew cut, glasses, etc. — and was a gymnast in the 1956 Olympics. He was also the first person any of us knew who had stereo earphones, and he taught us all to play mahjong.
The first day of journalism class, Mr. Simms did what just about every journalism teacher does in the beginning — he began to teach us how to write a lead. The way this is normally done is that the teacher dictates a set of facts and the class attempts to write the first paragraph of a news story about them. Who, what, where, when, how and why. So he read us a set of facts. It went something like this:
“Kenneth L. Peters, principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the faculty of the high school will travel to Sacramento on Thursday for a colloquium on new teaching methods. Speaking there will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, educator Robert Maynard Hutchins, and several others.”
We all began typing, and after a few minutes we turned in our leads. All of them said approximately what Mr. Simms had dictated, but in the opposite order (“Margaret Mead and Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the faculty,” etc.). Mr. Simms riffled through what we had turned in, smiled, looked up and said: “The lead to the story is, ‘There will be no school Thursday.’”
It was an electrifying moment. So that’s it, I realized. It’s about the point. The classic newspaper lead of who-what-where-when-how-and-why is utterly meaningless if you haven’t figured out what the significance of the facts is. What is the point? What does it mean? He planted those questions in my head.
And for the year he taught me journalism, every day was like the first; every assignment, every story, every set of facts he provided us had a point buried in it somewhere if you looked hard enough. He turned the class into a gorgeous intellectual game, and he gave me an enthusiasm for the profession that I have never lost. Also, of course, he taught me something that works just as well in life as it does in journalism.
After teaching at Beverly Hills High School for two years, Charles Simms quit and opened a chain of record stores in Los Angeles. I hope he’s a millionaire.