Nine years ago, The Independent wondered what was on the minds of teenagers.
So the paper asked.
It asked not what was on the minds of high school students but rather if a couple of them would just tell us ... and the world ... their stories.
A decade later, we, and they, are still at it: The Independent and two high school students to whom we give a voice every September.
Abbey Kutlas and Hannah Niemeier (more on them in my column) are the 10th iteration of The Independent’s Next Voice columnists. They will bring you their worlds every Monday morning for a year.
The 13 young writers who filed weekly Next Voice columns before Abbey and Hannah are now flung across the face of the country, from Boulder to Boston to Chicago to Jackson, Miss., and back home again.
They are a successful bunch, too.
Aside from six undergrads and one graduate student, the group comprises two journalists, a social media planner, a couple teachers and a researcher.
They are armed, too, with the hopes and dreams of the young and, as regular readers of the Next Voice column know, the intellect to make them happen.
None of us knew when we hired Liz Stinson and Laura Kjar in 2004 that what we then called the IYKWIM page column would become the popular weekly piece that it is today. (That’s “If you know what I mean” in textspeak.)
While the page eventually became Next Voice, the paper has been more than a little skittish with the column’s name: From “Life With Liz and Laura” to “Life With Liz and Laura Starring James and Betsey” to “From B to Z” to “Sarah and Zac (and then Betsy and Garrett and Nicole and Garrett) in Real Life” to the current generic “Youth Voice.”
While readers — youth and adult — have enjoyed the columns, the process has proven valuable for the writers, too.
“I remember sitting in front of the computer at my parents’ house ... staring at a blank page in Microsoft Word,” Stinson said. “It was always so hard to get the first words down, and even now, as a ‘professional’ journalist, I still find the process pretty painful at times. The column was my first brush with real deadlines, which ended up being good training for my future career.”
As they do with professional columnists, reader reactions ran the gamut for the baker’s dozen.
For teenagers, the results of such feedback can be critical.
“As an already emotional, unstable, often self-doubting, hormone-raging teenager, this can be terrifying,” James Pfeifer said. “Hearing just one person’s reaction can be the reinforcement you need.”
None of which shied them from sticky wickets.
Olivia Extrum tackled the subject of abortion in two columns this year. The response was swift and passionate on both sides, as she knew was coming.
“Although it was definitely scary at first, it showed me the importance of standing my ground in the face of controversy,” she said. “That is one of the most important things that journalism has taught me, and it is something that holds true in other areas of life as well.”
When Nicole Greenwalt felt stymied at school over the rejection of a piece in the school paper on homosexual students, she broached the subject in her Next Voice column.
“The response was incredible. There were letters to the editor about my column, and teachers and students wrote to the administration. Our principal and I had a pretty heated talk in his office that next morning, but eventually the article was published,” she said.
For Kjar, the entire year was a journey of getting out of her comfort zone.
“Writing a column for the newspaper made me feel exposed but not in a scary way,” she said. “I have always been a quiet, reserved person, and this experience allowed me to share my thoughts and experiences with what felt like everyone at the time. It sometimes was a little nerve-wracking.”
Garrett Coble, the only columnist to write for three years, recounted getting a service patch in the mail from a Vietnam veteran after a Memorial Day column. “That meant more to me than words can really describe,” he said.
Writing the Next Voice column smoothed a few miles of road along a bumpy stretch in a couple lives.
Zac Brokenrope recalled such comfort.
“At the time, I was an awkward gay teenager living in rural Nebraska. To say that I was lonely would have been an understatement. Yet, for some reason, writing for The Independent made it all seem better. I guess it’s a true testament to the power of storytelling. Even when you don’t know if anyone’s listening at all, sometimes it just feels good to put yourself out there, to let your words enter the world and hope that somewhere, maybe someone is listening to you, and you’re a little less alone in the universe.”
Having a voice cushioned some harsh realities for Betsy Lewis, too.
“The column was a great way for me to document my busy senior year, while also providing me with an outlet for dealing with difficult situations, such as my grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s and her death,” she said.
Their audience has staying power, too.
Betsey (Stehlik) Heidrick, who once filed her column on “the greasy keyboard of a Norwegian cruise ship’s Internet cafe,” said adults will still come up to her when she visits her parents to tell her they enjoyed her column.
Journalist Sarah Kuta sees her former columnist gig with a wide lens.
“Reading back through my old columns is like looking at a scrapbook, a home movie and reading an old diary all at once. I can hear me talking, but it’s not really me at all anymore. Who would’ve thought all those times Mom said I’d feel differently when I’m older, she was right?” Kuta said. “I still work in journalism, and I guess I have that column to thank for that. ... I still love to write, and I love my job as a storyteller.”
Which, in the end, is really how we know what’s up with kids today, how we gauge their paths and measure their passions, how we size up their hopes and fears and admire and mark their dreams.
We listen to the voices of their storytellers.