“Da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da! If I were the president I would be giving $3 million to starving children. I would also end the war in Iraq. I would try to make everyone happy.”
This is the full text of a journal entry entitled “If I Were the President” that I wrote when I was eight years old. While I was home for a few weeks after this past semester, my mom pulled out my old schoolwork, all of the notebooks and assignments she held onto over the course of my childhood and early adult life. I read through the composition books, occasionally impressed with my writing skills (I used a semicolon correctly in third grade!) or amused at my rhetorical choices.
“Da, da, da, da’s” aside, what interested me most about my childhood writing was my unabashed creativity, my unfiltered belief in easy solutions. In my journal, I could save all the “starving children” with $3 million—a small sum relative to the gravity of childhood hunger. In my journal, I could end the war in Iraq and make everyone happy—perhaps an oxymoron.
I wrote a story called “Magical Sled Adventure” in which I met Santa, who inexplicably carried golden menorahs in his sled. I wrote about turning into a polka-dotted sheep, who was still a fantastic swimmer. I used onomatopoeia—which I could spell better then than now—accenting my stories with upper-case exclamations like “BANG!” and “CLANG!”
Somewhere along the way, I lost some of that creativity. I tampered some of that childhood idealism and naivety. I no longer imagine ending food insecurity with $3 million. I don’t even imagine being president.
Usually, this is the part of the column where I lament that loss of imagination and optimism. I could go on a tirade against our education system, which sucks away our sense of self. I could rail against the University for prioritizing standardized test scores over creativity and stifling individual voices.
But actually, I’m not going to do any of that. In fact, in some ways, I am glad for my tinged imagination. What I have lost in ability to dream up polka-dotted sheep or magical sleds I have gained in ability to synthesize vast swaths of information, analyze it clearly and explicitly, and present it in a public manner. What I have lost in self-assuredness, I have gained in humility, in thoroughness. Duke has enough self-absorption—it needs humble, careful analysis.
My Duke career—and I suspect most people’s Duke careers—has been full of getting lost in minutia, of over-valuing my own ideas, of reading three articles about a topic and assuming I’m the world’s leading expert in it. In these moments, I am reminded of the third-grader who assumed she could solve world hunger. I sometimes get so deep into a problem, so far down into an academic hole, that I forget the people I’m writing about and I neglect to speak in regular words. I think many Duke students are guilty of this third-grade trap—missing the forest through the trees because we think we’re the best cartographers.
Imagination, creativity and idealism are important—essential, even. They play a valuable role in the editorial section.
But the editorial section is not a diary, not like my third-grade notebooks. It should not exist to publish sweeping claims or unfounded ideas. It should not exist to talk about the weather or existential crises or even to wax poetic about student journalism like I’m doing now. The editorial section, above all, is a platform in which to comment on the news of the day. It is a platform for straightforward, persuasive rhetoric on relevant issues that impact real people. It is the pulse of campus conversation, the first place to gauge student opinions on all things Duke.
Many of you will be starting your first semester at Duke this fall. I write on the verge of my seventh. I won’t pretend to have much advice on succeeding in class or balancing your time well, but after six semesters, I know a lot about the Chronicle editorial section. Whether you’re interested in writing as a columnist, becoming an editor or just submitting a letter to the editor once in a while, I hope that you will be not just creative and ambitious in your writing, but relevant, honest and straightforward. I hope that you will better our political commentary by backing up your claims, interviewing relevant sources and using clear, concise language. I hope that you will advance our social commentary through honest reflection tied to ongoing campus events and news. I hope that the editorial section will be your space to share thorough and well-researched opinions, rather than diary entries.
Regardless of whether or not you have an interest in writing, I think this is useful advice for college. Our thoughts are worth little if they are uninterpretable and vague, detached or unresearched like my ideas for presidency. Ask any Duke student, and they will likely empathize with the experience of coming home from a long semester of school, only to be asked what they studied or what they’re doing this summer and be left speechless. College lets you get so deep into the weeds that you forget how to tell your grandma what you’re working on. And whether you’re writing a column or just at the dinner table, that simple communication is the most important of all.
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So, welcome to the editorial section of Volume 115. You won’t find many stories about magical sled adventures and you won’t find a thorough account of my “Summer Vacation Plans”—but if you’re lucky, you’ll find something worth reading.
Leah Abrams is a Trinity senior and the Editor of the Editorial Section. Her column, “cut the bull,” runs on alternate Fridays.