This past April, I received a call that would change my life forever. Fifty-one student journalists are selected from around the country to attend the Al Neuharth Journalism and Free Spirit conference in Washington, D.C. When I picked up my phone, a representative from the Newseum informed me that I had been selected to represent Rhode Island. It was by far the biggest honor of my life.
I then got chewed out by Mr. Schofield for answering a phone call in the middle of English class.
The next two months were full of anticipation. I had no clue what the conference would be like, and wasn’t sure how my fellow Free Spirits would be. May and June went by quickly, though, and on June 16th, I boarded a train that would take me to Washington.
I still had seven and a half hours to wait before I met anyone else, though. Our train was incredibly slow on the way to Washington, stopping much more frequently than I expected. When I finally arrived at Union Station, confused but relieved at finally getting off the train, I was glad to see a few other people in the sky blue Free Spirit shirts, and we all introduced ourselves.
After introducing myself to Stella from Delaware, Alex from Pennsylvania, and Ariana from New York, we made our way together through Union Station until we found the employee sent there to pick us up and take us to our hotel.
The Holiday Inn we stayed at was a nice place, with a rooftop pool (that we never got a chance to go to all week) and a wax statue of Elton John smiling at us in the lobby. I made my way up to Room 415, dropped my luggage in my room, and went to the conference room to meet everybody else.
The Free Spirits I met at the train station were there, as well as five others- Cari from Minnesota, Grace from Louisiana, Audrey from Michigan, Eric from North Dakota, and Will from South Dakota. The nine of us talked for a couple of hours, talking about different weird things that happened at our schools and wondering why none of the rest of the Free Spirits had showed up yet. By the time everybody else showed up, we had already bonded- and we set up an icebreaking game for everybody else coming in.
After we got the rules out of the way, the rest of the day went pretty quickly. After a stop at the Hard Rock Cafe and the first of many stops at the Newseum, by which time most of us knew a good amount of our peers (or at least knew of them), we retired back to the Holiday Inn. I ended up in the only room with three people- me, Will, and Devan from Virginia. The problem was that there were only two beds, and it would be thirty dollars per night to move an extra cot up. After a couple minutes of trying to work things out, Will stuck two box chairs together and proclaimed “It feels just like a bed.” And thus, our first issue was solved.
Our late nights typically involved conversations before bed, often interrupted by the lady monitoring our halls popping into our room telling us to be quiet and being greeted by an increasingly exasperated Devan, who was closest to the door, telling her that we were sorry and we would. Additionally, Will explained to us that he did a daily vlog, and that he would be vlogging every night before bed. On the first night, Will ended up going into the bathroom to film. When I went into the bathroom later, I noticed “Thank you Scott” written on our toilet paper.
The days at Free Spirit were extremely long. We all went up to our rooms to retire for the night at around 11 at night, and we had been warned that we had to be at breakfast by 7:20. Devan and I ended up going down at about 6:30 on Sunday morning, figuring that other people would have the same idea. As we showed up, realizing that we were the only ones at breakfast, we made a mental note to ourselves to get the extra twenty minutes of sleep- after all, we wouldn’t be getting much sleep that week.
Our second day started off with us going to a taping of Meet the Press. We ended up watching quite a spirited show, as Kellyanne Conway was on that week, talking with Chuck Todd about the separation of immigrant families on the US/Mexico border. Tellingly, she was the only person on the set that day that treated us like we weren’t there, with Chuck and the fellow panelists for that episode talking with us, and Chuck answering our questions as a group and taking a picture with us. After that, we ended up going back to the Newseum, where Val Hoeppner, a journalism professor from Tennessee, talked with us about the importance of social media. Val would talk with us again later that week.
The amount of important speakers we had at the Free Spirit conference were staggering. Among others, we spoke with Doug Mills, who has been a presidential photographer since the Reagan administration, Royce Lamberth, a US District Court judge, Mike McCurry, one of Bill Clinton’s press secretaries, and Sara Ganim, a reporter for CNN who made her name as the reporter who uncovered the Jerry Sandusky sexual assault/ pedophilia scandal. She even gave us a bit of breaking news, revealing to us all over video chat that she was pregnant. Additionally, we had members of the #MeToo movement speak to us, and two Freedom Riders from the 1960s- Rip Patton and Joan Mulholland.
That afternoon, we ended up getting to go all around the Newseum. I went along with Nathan from Massachusetts, Anjali from Iowa, and Raiha from Indiana for much of the hours that we had free, and got to know them all well. If anyone reading this ever goes to Washington D.C., make sure you check out the Newseum- it’s a great place that kept me interested in every word printed on its walls, and I hate most museums.
That night in Washington proved to be one of the best. We went to Uno’s for dinner, where I sat with most of the same people I was with for the first day, having already gotten really comfortable with each other, and then went on a tour of the city that night. The night tours were probably my favorite parts of the conference- for about an hour every night, we all got to be fifty-one teenagers, talking and joking with each other at some of the most famous monuments in US history. Danny and Noelle, the Close Up employees that were assigned to keep watch on us, ended up being the perfect chaperones.They were about five to ten years older than us, quirky, and we all grew to love them over the course of the week.
The next morning, Val talked to us again. We ended up using VR during this session, which, since my phone couldn’t download it, I had to share with Raiha, who was sitting next to me. Lunch every day was held at the Newseum, and it was insane how fancy everything was. The water bottles they gave us were made out of glass, and the food was catered by Wolfgang Puck. We had speakers during every lunch- after all, there were tons of speakers, and that was the only way they could fit them all in to speak with us.
Following a courtroom session in the afternoon, where we acted out a jury proceeding on a high school journalism case, the Newseum held a celebratory dinner for Lesley Visser, who was being honored with the Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media. Visser is famous for being the only woman enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as well as the first woman to cover football. Free Spirits from past years were invited to this dinner too, and I ended up meeting Brian O’Gara, the 2015 Free Spirit from Rhode Island. Myself and a couple other Free Spirits talked with Lesley Visser before the speech. Following Mrs. Visser’s speech, we went on another long-anticipated night tour before we went back to the hotel.
Tuesday morning was a little bit different. We did go to the Newseum as usual, but instead of spending all morning in our usual seventh-floor “classroom,” we instead went to the third floor after our first two talks. There, in front of us, was a monument to journalists that had been killed while they were working. There, Courtney Radsch, a member of the Committee to Protect Journalists, spoke to us about the various dangers of the profession many of us would be getting into. It’s no secret that journalists all around the world are in constant danger- outside the Newseum hangs a large banner stating “Free Austin Tice,” in reference to a journalist that was imprisoned for his work in Syria. Seeing that presentation, however, was sobering.
Later that day, we went on a tour of USA Today. Having also been founded by Al Neuharth, they have been connected with us for a while, and took us on a tour of their building. As someone who has been in the buildings of many journalistic institutions, I had never quite seen any newsroom quite as big as theirs. Dinner that night was great, and we went on to “Freedom Sings,” a concert that was being held in our honor. I sat in the back with Alex, Raiha, Rohan from New Hampshire, and Macy from Florida. We all screwed around and had fun together, and the concert- much like the week itself- proved to be much better than anyone expected.
On Wednesday, we took a tour of the Capitol. Our tour ended up being eventful- we managed to get through the sea of yellow shirts of Falun Dafa protesters (who were nice enough to give us all pamphlets on what they were doing) into the actual building. Our tour guide was actually from Rhode Island, and would point out everything in the Capitol that had a RI connection, which I appreciated. The Capitol itself was a beautiful building, and we all had a bit of a greater degree of freedom in there, leading to such things as Will giving a bunch of people wearing “Make America Great Again” hats a note saying “Your hat is dumb” and Raiha and Macy Instagram DMing Paul Ryan. Overall, it was a very enjoyable tour.
From then, we went to our final speakers- the Freedom Riders and Doug Mills- and from there, we went to our graduation. It was a bittersweet thing, as we were really getting sad that the week was almost over. We had chosen Emma from Tennessee and Nathan to give speeches in a heated election the night before, and they both gave our commencement speeches, with both mentioning many of the funny and memorable things from that week, such as Emma talking about the time that I ripped my pants at the Jefferson Memorial and Nathan mentioning having to explain to Liam from Alaska what traffic was. Once we all got our medals, we finally got to change into more casual clothes and head out to a celebratory boat ride along the Potomac- or so we thought. We ended up being stopped in traffic for a total of two and a half hours, and only got about half an hour on the boat. Danny and Noelle handled it well, though, and managed to get us the same room at the hotel that we all went to at the beginning of the week. We all stayed there as long as we could (to the dismay of the people in the rooms nearby) until eventually we all had to say our goodbyes.
The phone in our room woke me up at 5:30 Thursday morning. The car driving Will and a couple others to the airport was on its way and waiting for him. In the span of ten minutes, he got his bags packed and said goodbye to Devan and I. A couple of hours later, I said goodbye to Devan and went downstairs for breakfast.
Nicole from Kansas and Raiha had pulled all-nighters to say goodbye to everyone, and we were the only ones down for breakfast at the time. Most of us had already left, starting with Liam at 2:30 in the morning, and they had stayed up saying goodbye to everyone. As it got a bit later, a couple others joined us downstairs- Caitlin from Colorado, Garrett from Mississippi, Hunter from Arizona (who was going on the train back with those of us who were on there before) Anika from Maryland, and Christopher from Georgia were still there and joined us for breakfast. Eventually, at around 9:30, the car to take us to the train had arrived and myself, Stella, Alex, Ariana, and Hunter had to say our goodbyes.
We all sat together on the train on the way back, joking with each other on the way back. Eventually the train came to Stella’s stop, then Alex’s, then Ariana’s, and then Hunter’s (who was going to Connecticut). The week of Free Spirit had officially ended, and I can honestly say it was the best week of my life.
Over the course of a week, I talked with 50 fellow high school journalists from around the country. We all learned more about each other’s states and made fun of each other for it. We all ate some of the fanciest food we’ve ever had (and we made Alex drink salad dressing that we poured salt, pepper, and sugar into and Will eat two napkins with a cookie in the middle). We all hung out together whenever we could for as long as we could. We all bonded, we all connected, and I am proud and honored to call myself a member of this group- and to be able to say that I have a friend in every state around the country.
We all keep in touch every day. We have a gigantic group chat that we are all a part of, and many smaller individual chats. We all Skype each other when we can, and talk from things as varied as what’s going on in the news to the differences between our states to staircases. I even ended up meeting up with Rohan and Nathan in Boston for a day around town in August. The genuine love and respect that all 51 of us have for each other is something that I have never felt before in my life. It is, by far, the greatest group I have ever got to call myself a part of, and something that I can proudly state the rest of my life.
The world is changing. Politics are becoming more polarized and divisive, and journalists often find themselves under attack by Donald Trump and other world leaders. But through it all, we have already started to change the world. We were one of the major groups of journalists that wrote to the Newseum urging them to pull their “Fake News” t-shirts off the shelves. Individually, many of us are running programs that are making our towns, cities, and states better places.
However, despite all the bad news in the world today, we all have the potential to change the world for the better. We are the Parkland generation, as Rip Patton coined us, and we possess the power and the will to make positive change in the world- a type of energy Patton has not seen since he was protesting in the 1960s. Whatever news ends up happening in the world, you can bet that the 2018 Free Spirits will shine a ray of light as we work to change the world for the better.
(Photo Courtesy of Freedom Forum Institute).