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October 23, 2017

Finding motivation in an unlikely place

(Brendan Deedy)

(Brendan Deady)

At 1:30 a.m. on my last night on production desk, I sat chewing my cheeks obsessing over what I’m going to write in this column, over how to summarize two years that passed in a blur. It was typical of my experience at the Massachusetts Daily Collegian: sleep-deprived, frantic and hard-pressed against a deadline. But this is the final deadline and I was at a loss for words.

Then fate sent me a little Greek Muse. Well, he’s half a Greek.

Chiarelli stood in the back corner, behind the arts desk, among all the choice reminders the past decides to leave in its place. He scanned the copies of old papers yellowed with time, the lineup of dusted beer bottles along the top of the cold metal cabinets and read all the inside jokes crudely scrawled by past editors whose punchlines departed with their authors.

He called me over to look at a note left behind by someone I do not know that outlines all the writing not-to-dos, many of which I’ll probably break in the rest of this column.

He lowered his voice and spoke more to himself, more to everyone who’s ever worked at the Collegian and struggled to cull a meaning from the years of sleepless nights spent in this health hazard of an office.
“It’s crazy how many people care about this place,” his voice trailed off again. “This place means something to a lot of people … this place really means something.”

I’ve never enjoyed writing about myself. I don’t believe an absent-minded 21-year-old has much to offer in terms of perspective. But endings always press us to arrive at some sort of conclusion, to grab hold of the time slipping by and hold it before us so we can say this, this means something.

And they’re right, this place means something. It’s more than a starting ground or platform of self-promotion for stumbling college kids. It’s a staple of the University, a tradition that connects its members to writers who’ve held up its name for over 125 years.

I’ve despaired (writing not-to-do number two: avoid hyperbole) about how to approach this article, wary that the end will force a superficial sense of profundity. But I owe a lot to this place and its story is comprised of all the movable parts who’ve kept it running. So, I’ll pay up on some debt and offer my own little chapter.

The first time I appeared in the Collegian was as a subject, not a writer. I ended my first weekend as a sophomore transfer student in a pair of handcuffs, facing a judge the following Monday morning for an underage drinking charge. It was the latest of a laundry list of screw-ups. Sure enough, there was my name in the Tuesday paper’s police log.

Fast-forward less than a year and I was writing the police log. That appears to mark some cliché transition, where a person hell-bent on self-sabotage finds an outlet to collect themselves and regain some sense of purpose. I’m aware: it’s trite and isn’t as monumental as it sounds. But, it happened and it’s a cute little thing I get to say.

I’m still in the midst of this flawed transition, one incomplete and which I still don’t fully comprehend. But it means something. That much I know.

My ability to get by on the smallest of efforts had been a mental crutch for the first 18 years of my life. Now it was finally crumbling under the weight of poor decisions.

I am a person who only acts once I feel the heat of the fire against my skin. I felt the heat then, and I needed a motivation to draw me from the fire. With fear of overstatement, the Collegian became that motivation.

Despite what my demeanor may suggest, I’m a shy and insecure person. I remember my voice quivering while I conducted my first phone interview for the first article I wrote, then obsessing over each sentence before submitting. Over time as the articles wracked up, the voice stabilized, the insecurity waned, the first hints of confidence appeared.

The people who make up this staff are indeed an odd breed. I am odd, but for less admirable reasons. They’re odd in the sense that they’re willing to offer a helping hand to strangers, work long hours for no pay and little recognition. Odd because despite coming from disparate backgrounds, our collective investment in the stock of the paper has erased the unnecessary need of maintaining the prejudices developed from our respective pasts.

Admittedly, I probably wouldn’t have interacted with much of the staff had I retained the mindset of that arrogant and complacent 19-year-old standing in front a judge with a chip on my shoulder and my tail between my legs. I’m glad I didn’t.

I won’t sit here and say I found a life-altering revelation within that room tucked away in the Campus Center basement. But change doesn’t work that way. It’s gradual and picked up from the small lessons people usually don’t realize they’re giving you.

I welcomed the accountability and highs of collective effort. And I’ve appreciated the patience of the individuals forgiving of my antics and loose definition of the word “deadline.” We’ve all really just been offering each other the opportunity to improve and develop and hopefully have a good impact outside our walls in the process.

Now, pressured by the approach of an end, I feel the guard of cynicism arising within me as a protection against a potential criticism of over-sentimentality. But screw it, I’m graduating.

Yes, this place means something, something different for every individual who walks through the doors or picks up our paper. But the meaning is larger than mine or any of our individual stories.

Its meaning exists in its connection to the past, its influence in the present, its foundation for the formation of memories that’ll exist long after all the pages yellow and the names of all the seniors leaving are long forgotten.

Brendan Deady can be reached at bdeady@umass.edu or followed on Twitter @bdeady26.

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