Reach For The Stars

 I returned to school in June of this year. I did so because my work in the field of cyberbullying was not garnering many speaking engagements, and I was feeling unproductive, unstimulated, bored.

So I returned to Concordia, and was accepted to the Graduate Diploma in Journalism. This will, if all goes according to plan, lead me to a year in the M.A. Program (Digital Innovation in Journalism Studies), and give me two graduate degrees in Journalism within the space of two years.
It’s been intense, and rewarding, but that’s for another piece. I would like to share what unfolded last night (the 18th of October).
In September, we all received email from the Program Director (Dr. James McLean) to consider applying for one or both bursaries that would be awarded by the Montreal Gazette in October. Every year, the Gazette selects students from the applications they receive and awards them the Susan Carson Memorial Bursary, and the Philip Fisher Bursary.
An essay is required for the application, and so I began to research these two people.
Philip Fisher was a fascinating man, a fighter pilot and eventually the president of Southam Group, which owned the Gazette. I wrote an essay discussing how his belief in education for journalists adds to the opportunities we will eventually have.
Susan Carson was a journalist who wrote for the Living section of the Gazette. Tragically dying young, 30 years ago, a victim of cancer, her work speaks loudly. She championed the causes of those in society who most needed to be recognized – the downtrodden. Her words not only touched hearts, they opened hearts. For example, she wrote about homeless women who went to food banks to feed their children, but found a lack of food in those places. Montrealers opened their hearts and wallets after that, flooding food banks with donations so that those in need would never have to face hunger. There were many examples of how she reached the minds and souls of her readers, and I was deeply inspired.
So I wrote from my heart:

In learning about Susan Carson, I was deeply moved by her commitment to shedding light on those less fortunate than others. She wrote about real people and she wrote so compellingly that her readers opened their hearts and acted upon the emotions she had evoked.
I cannot help but wonder what effects I could have upon potential readers, if I were to take a page from Susan Carson’s book. Only instead of society’s downtrodden, the people I wish to help are those being bullied.
I wrote my thesis after having researched cyberbullying for years. At the time, that word was not yet a household term, and it was difficult to find information on the subject. But it was not impossible, and I was able to find stories in the media that shed light on the faces of bullying. More to the point, it was the headlines of tragedy that caught my attention.
In 2010 alone, 34 were lost to bullycide, children as young as eight years old, who felt their lives were so tormented that they could not go on living.
I reached out to families who, as a result of their unimaginable losses, had begun to work on behalf of those victims of bullying who might yet be saved.
I reached out to John Halligan first. John’s son, Ryan, was 13 years old when he took his own life, hanging himself from the bannister in their home. John sought answers online, though new to the technology back in 2003, and saw chat logs between Ryan and his tormentors. He read where his son wrote to the girl who had rejected him, “it’s girls like you that make me want to kill myself.”
One correspondent in particular coached Ryan on death and suicide. “If you killed yourself you would really make them feel bad.” Ryan’s response was, “you’ll read about me tomorrow.”
This story repeats itself almost weekly. Amanda Todd, Rehtaeh Parsons, Megan Meier, Ty Smalley, almost weekly. There are also the kids who are keeping it all inside – for now; I call them the walking wounded.
I have befriended many parents of bullycide victims. Without exception, each of them wears their heart on their sleeves, and yet their strength and determination to see bullying stopped inspires me.
Cyberbullying awareness is not just something I wanted to do; it became a mission, a resolve within that continues to propel me to educate others. I have sought every venue, every forum, every format I can in order to impart the advice and knowledge that continues to grow as I persist in this quest.
In considering journalism, it dawned on me that I could combine my raison d’être with the ability to disseminate this information more widely than any classroom or blog.
I don’t know if bullying will ever stop; but if I could play some part in at least reducing its numbers, and if I could do it by writing the stories, reaching the people who need to hear these details, I know it is crucial for me to at least try.
Ms. Carson’s work has inspired me even more than before. If, through her writing, she was able to reach Montrealers to donate to food banks, to face their own biases and make necessary changes, then perhaps I, too, can reach readers who may be living with the walking wounded.
I may not change the world, but I hope to make a difference. With my strengths in writing, and my motivation to reach those in need, perhaps I can begin to achieve my goal.

I sent it in, and went about my semester.

As the night approached, I continued to temper my hopes. I know that I am working and studying alongside very sharp, expressive, talented classmates, and any one of them was deserving of the recognition by either of the two bursary committees.

We had class yesterday, and were all going to go to the awards afterward; some people had rides, others went with the professor, and I took three other classmates in my car. We joked about how we all clean up so well (guys wearing suits and ties, girls in skirts, dresses, business attire), and how much fun the evening would be.

I would be lying if I didn’t say my hopes weren’t there – they were. They were just tamped down. 

We arrived at the offices of the Montreal Gazette – my Mecca – and entered the vestibule; if my classmates were reflective of me, my eyes were as wide and wonder-filled as theirs.

We entered where the security guard indicated, and met up with other classmates in the reception area. We found seats, put our jackets over them, and went to get refreshments (wine was served – so I took red). We milled about, chattering excitedly, and when the Editor-in-Chief, Lucinda Chodan, walked into the area, a hushed buzz of awe accompanied her. She is a very well-respected woman in our city, and I was starstruck.

Standing with my classmates, I was approached by Jim (our Program Director) who said, “It’s Lissa? Or Leesa?” (pronouncing the first as the second part of “Melissa”). I grinned. It’s a common question, and I informed him that it is “Lisa, with a double s.” He smiled, nodded, and walked back to the front of the room.

Now, there could only have been one reason one of the emcees of this event would need the pronunciation of my name…but even then, I did not dare to hope.

We saw Ms. Chodan take the podium, and took our seats. I was in the last row, next to the middle aisle, and had to lean over to see (tall people in front of me – just a hazard of being 5’2″).

She said some opening words, then introduced Jim. He, too, made some opening remarks, and introduced the family of Susan Carson for the first award.

Her daughter spoke. She gave some background on her mother’s love of the building, the people she worked with, and the people she met writing her pieces.

She said, “My mother would have loved this year’s recipient.” She went on to talk about this recipient’s important mission, in the work she is doing, and when she said, “…in cyberbullying,” every single head swiveled to look at me. It was a blur, but I saw newfound friends smiling – no, beaming at me, and my hand went to my throat in reaction. I might have closed my eyes, to absorb this.

When I was introduced, I made my way to the podium, my hand on my heart as I locked eyes with Susan’s daughter. I was aware of so many eyes on me, and I knew that I had to say some words of thanks. In fact, we’d been advised to prepare something – just in case.

I, however, had not. And, as I was told that morning by someone who knows me well, I would successfully wing it.

When I got to the podium Susan’s daughter embraced me.

(Photo: Amanda Jones)

I was overwhelmed as I took the podium.

(Photo: Amanda Jones)

And then I faced the audience.


(Photo: Amanda Jones)


I instantly knew what I was going to say. I’ll have to paraphrase myself, because I had not prepared anything in advance.

But I turned to Susan Carson’s family, and said, “I lost my mother when she was young too. Not as young as yours, but too young. And it was her love of language, her love of words that was instilled in me, at a very young age. I have always told stories, I have always been a writer of sorts, and I can’t help but think that my mom would be so proud to see me in this program using my words to make a difference. It is truly a privilege to be in this program, with these people” (I know I indicated my fellow classmates with my hands) “and in this department, guided by such wonderful professors.”

I know I am not the typical Grad Dip student, so I acknowledged that. I continued.

“This is my third incarnation, and to be able to go on to use the power of my words to help shed light on victims of bullying and cyberbullying is something I truly hope to do.” I turned to the family again and assured them that I would strive to be worthy of that inspiring woman’s name via this recognition, and I once again put my hand to my heart and said, “I am deeply honored. Thank you so much.”

I heard the applause – through the buzzing in my ears. I received embraces and kisses from Susan Carson’s daughter, Lucinda Chodan, and then went to Jim as directed by Ms. Chodan, to receive an envelope. He, too, shook my hand and leaned over to embrace and double-cheek kiss me (Montrealers do that, by the way).

I somehow made it back to my seat. By then, I was trembling. My classmates around me were beaming (the graciousness of their congratulations resonates even now), and congratulated me softly.

I applauded just as loudly for my two classmates who also received awards, and then the ceremonies wrapped up.

Still shaking, I looked for a drink – but realized wine was probably not a good idea. (*grins*)

But I wouldn’t have been able to; each and every classmate in that room made their way over to embrace and congratulate me. The warmth and the outpouring of happiness for me is something I will never forget.

I saw, in the corner of my eye, John Kalbfleisch, who was Susan Carson’s husband. He came over to me, and took both my hands.

“I had to come talk to you one-on-one,” he said. “I wanted to thank you.”

I didn’t know if I had heard him correctly. Thank me? I said, “But I am the one to thank you,” and he smiled.

“I want to thank you for applying,” he clarified. “We have read a lot of these essays over the years. We read many this year too. But when we read yours, we looked at each other and said, ‘that’s our girl.’ We were very moved by what you wrote.”

I had to hold back tears. I thanked him profusely. He embraced me and I said, “I will reiterate to you – I will strive to earn this honor, with every word I write.”

He smiled and held my shoulders. “Go get ’em,” he said with a nod, and with a kiss, went off to his family.

I talked with classmates for the rest of the evening. I congratulated my two classmates on their achievements as well, and I could see that they were feeling the same buoyed awe as I.

We went on a tour of the Gazette newsroom, and aside from being named a recipient of an award, that was a massive high point of my evening! It’s gorgeous, and it’s sacred, and it’s where I hope to work.

I was asked to sit down with Steve Faguy, a journalist whose blog I follow. In fact, I had introduced myself to him at the beginning of the evening, complimenting his style (it was at that point that I also told Lucinda Chodan that I was a little more than starstruck being able to meet her as well).

Steve writes up the Gazette awards every year, and I was the last of the winners to be interviewed. So we went into a separate room, and I gave him my interview.

He told me I’m definitely not the typical recipient of these awards. I had told him about my undergrad, my teaching experience, my Masters degree, my thesis and research in cyberbullying, my interviewing Holocaust survivors, and even my writing about the Montreal Canadiens. He grinned.

“Every person I’ve ever interviewed at these things gives me their bio: ‘I did my undergrad in this and now I’m here.’ You? You’re different.”

I had to grin when I told him yeah, I’m kind of like the den mother of the group but that my classmates have truly opened up to me and made me feel like I belong, age notwithstanding. 

I felt bad, though – he had one phone recording me, and was typing out notes on the other phone. It’s likely his battery was low, due to the long evening and two other interviews. But it died during my interview. (I’ve apologized to him via Twitter)

When I was ready to leave, he showed me how to get to the escalator, and said, “By the way, the new [legalized] pot store is down the street, that way.”

I smiled and said, “I think I’ll pass. I’m on a natural high.”

He smiled too, told me to enjoy it, and we parted ways.

I got into my car in an absolute state of continued awe. I called my dad first. Talked with him all the way to my exit. I’ve since made many other calls, to people in my life who have continued to support me in everything I’ve done.

It’s still just sinking in. The recognition I received with this award means the world to me. It is affirmation that I have, once again, made a good decision in returning to school. Age is just a number. It’s how we feel that determines what we can do, and I’m starting to believe, as I’ve been told so often, that I really can do anything I set my mind to.

Here’s something many people do not know: just last semester, at least twice, in tears, I proclaimed that I had been foolish to think I could enter a brand new department after two degrees in Education, and had decided I would drop the program.

I am so very glad I did not let my emotions carry me away.

I will pursue every avenue open to me in this new incarnation. Journalism has always been something I’ve seen from the outside in. I am starting to believe I am slipping inside the door to see it from an insider’s perspective.

And I am more confident than ever before that I will succeed.

The profound sense of reverence from last night remains strong. I suspect it will for a while. And it has inspired me more than ever before.

I welcome the Future.

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