By Halle Newman
The best place to sit on a plane is a window seat. You can stare down at the labyrinths of neighborhoods and ribboning highways as they shrink below you, watch as buildings turn to dollhouses and fields turn into green patchwork on the quilt of mountains below. A window seat lets you see the world in a way you can’t from the ground.
Last June, I took a plane to Washington, DC for the trip of a lifetime. I scored a window seat on the plane ride there, and wrung my hands with anticipation as the plane took off into the sky. I was on my way to the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference, where I would be meeting fifty other high school juniors from each state in the country (plus DC) and spend a week at the Newseum (the national museum of news and the First Amendment) learning about journalism. This annual conference honors the legacy of USA Today founder, Al Neuharth, by inspiring a new generation of journalists. I couldn’t have been more nervous.
Before I knew it, I was sitting by the window again, this time on a van full of people from all over the United States. As we idled in the traffic of our nation’s capital, I learned about life in Idaho, Montana, Florida, Illinois, and Colorado. I watched cars with unfamiliar license plates beep at each other through the gargantuan van window, and caught glimpses of the people I’d just met laughing and conversing in its reflective glare.
I found myself at a window again later that day in the hotel room I shared with a girl named Annika, who was from Washington. We sat on the edge of our beds, eagerly interviewing each other about who we were until we couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore.
The next day, I saw Kellyanne Conway through a window of a bus. I was chatting with the girl next to me about her life in Louisiana and almost missed the Kate McKinnon-look alike as she slithered out of her car and into NBC Studios. I saw her again inside at the taping of Meet the Press, where she compared abortion to removing children from their parents at the border in a heated discussion with Chuck Todd.
I spent the rest of that day (and a large part of the week) in a sunny conference room surrounded by huge glass windows to my left overlooking DC and glass windows to my right looking down on the interior of the Newseum. We met with amazing journalists who gave us the inside scoops on what working in the White House is like with its current administration, how it feels to be a woman in a male-dominated newsroom, and what it’s like to investigate an incident that’s buried under the rug.
Talking to people whose stories had changed the nation was something that is difficult to describe. David Fahrenthold, a reporter for the Washington Post, spoke to us about how he exposed the Trump Foundation for financial fraud (“charitable donations”) through incredible investigative journalism and won a Pulitzer Prize for his work. Mary Pilon, a nationally acclaimed freelance journalist for publications like the New Yorker and The New York Times spoke to us about her experience growing into a journalist. She grew up with a mother in the trucking industry, and ended up publishing a breakthrough article about sexual harassment in the trucking industry long before #MeToo was brought into the limelight. Pilon was actually an alumni of the Free Spirit program, and had once sat in my seat absorbing inspiration and wisdom from speakers and peers. One of my highlights of the conference was talking to her about how to make the stories you tell have personal value without being biased.
One experience from the conference that will always remain close to my heart was when two Freedom Riders, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland and Dr. Ernest Patton, came in to talk with us about their protesting experience during the Civil Rights Movement. They invited us to sing songs with them that they sang while imprisoned, and engaged in conversations with us about how to protest racial inequality today. Hearing their stories was incredibly eye-opening and caused us all to examine the patterns of injustice and protest that persist today, and prompted us to discuss how to weave activism and journalism together in an ethical manner.
Most of my friendships with my fellow Free Spirit Scholars formed as we watched the city whiz by through the windows of a bus that shuttled us around DC. We listened to music that we all knew over the speakers (a favorite being “Country Roads”) and shared stories from our experiences as student journalists and just as teenagers. As it turned out, we all had a lot more in common than I expected. On the last night of the conference, I was up until two AM with my newfound friends making paper plate awards for the other fifty students. The appreciation we each felt for each other and the talent, passion, and perspective everyone brought was astounding.
When it was time to part ways, I hopped back onto a plane home and scored another window seat. I watched Washington DC shrink below me, and felt the pang of sadness in my chest you only feel when you know you’re never going to see a group of people again. Luckily, though, we’ve found windows of communication through group chats, skype, and even snail mail to ensure we all keep in touch. Even five months after the conference, I still find myself learning from these fifty other people, whether they’re texting about their political views or catching a spelling mistake in one of my articles. In a time when national politics is so polarized and personal, it’s refreshing to have people with contrasting views to talk to – not debate with- from all over the country.
Still, I’m only catching a glimpse.
The beauty of the window seat isn’t the winding rivers or cotton ball clouds; it’s understanding that there’s so much outside out the window to discover. My week in DC taught me to value all that I don’t know, and inspired me to go explore what is unknown to me with a free spirit.
If you are a current high school junior, you can apply to (the all-expenses-paid) Free Spirit Program now: https://www.freedomforuminstitute.org/initiatives/al-neuharth-free-spirit-and-journalism-conference/
A Note: BHS has sent five students to the Free Spirit conference, including past Editor-in-Chief Alexandre Silberman in 2016. He also wrote an article about his time in DC: https://bhsregister.com/the-week-of-a-lifetime/