It was still tough to ask about the scars.
I’d been a guest at the Cheley/Children’s Hospital Burn Camp in Estes Park for three days, and I was just starting to feel like an adopted member of a very impressive family. It was 2010, and photographer Gabriel Christus and I had made the trek up to the picturesque Cheley Campsite just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park. We came as strangers, a pair of journalists looking to get a good story about this summer camp specifically dedicated to young burn victims. But after spending a full weekend with these 84 campers and 20 counselors, the trip no longer felt like a regular newspaper assignment.
Teenagers with burn scars crisscrossing their face, arms and hands welcomed us at campfires and mess tables. Camp veterans in their early 20s — some with similar marks — never missed a beat when we asked to join a rock-climbing expedition or take a front seat for the weekend talent show. Most impressively, no camper ever refused when I asked about their injuries. No refusals came when I demanded with no small amount of hesitation, “Can you talk to me about your burns?”
That note of uncertainty still underlined my questions on this last day, as I sat with Lorin Smith, a 15-year-old camper from Oregon. His face bore the red and pink traces of flames that had burned him eight years before, and my obvious nervousness didn’t get in the way of forthrightness. He was calm and confident and honest, qualities he chalked up to his four years at this camp. “It makes you realize that your scars are nothing,” he told me. “It’s how you feel, it’s how you deal with them.”
Smith eloquently summed up the most durable and inspiring lesson of the weekend for me. The note of perseverence was one that I tried to convey to readers in the resulting story, and it’s one that I’ve since worked to apply to other realms of my life.
When I try to sum up my six years as a reporter at the Aurora Sentinel, Smith’s story of courage and conviction is only one of hundreds that come to mind. It’s the nature of this job. Whether you’re covering city hall, education or arts and culture, you’re working as a storyteller. The tales of others are your currency; telling your own stories isn’t how you earn your paycheck.
I’ve spent nearly every single week of the past six years and four months unearthing tales about this city of more than 300,000 where I grew up. I reported to my first day of work at an office that was a mere 10-minute drive from my childhood home. I sat through city council meetings and school board meetings near where I used to ride my bike as a kid. I met mayors and city council members, I quizzed county commissioners and school board members. I tried to keep up with every single theater production, concert or gallery opening that involved an actor, musician or artist that boasted even the slightest connection to the city.
Forget the cherished and noble objectivity of the trade for a moment. That kind of day-in, day-out interaction with a place can’t help but change you. Keeping libraries and pools open during budget shortfalls suddenly seems important. Standardized test scores from neighborhood schools start to really matter. The devoted artists who hustle and starve to bring culture to the community begin to take on the aura of heroes. And when tragedy erupts in the form of a vicious, bloody assault in a movie theater that’s within sight of your office window, you grieve and mourn with the victims in a way that leaves nightmares.
But other people’s stories are only one part of this job, albeit the part that drives the endless string of long nights spent reporting, writing and copy editing. I’m a different person than I was six years ago, largely because of the other storytellers I’ve had the privilege to meet in this newsroom.
They’re the ones who’ve kept me in check, who’ve always been willing to read over copy and offer blunt advice. They can jab with the most inappropriate and tasteless jokes, and I always know I can take it as a sign of affection. They can move to the other end of the country and still hold the honored status of a best friend.
I’ll still be able to call myself a storyteller when I move on to a new role at the Cherry Creek School District, working to tell the tales of teachers, students and all the other people who make that massive organization work. I’ll still be able to glean new insights about my own childhood roots, about the city I called home as a kid (My new office is at my old high school). What I won’t be able to do is laugh, gab, argue and commiserate with some of the world’s most talented writers, editors and photographers on a daily basis.
They’ve helped me write my own story, one that’s been made much richer by my six years at the Sentinel.