Internships: Let me tell you about interns

There’s something about a new crop of interns that puts butterflies in my stomach.

A little voice tells me it shouldn’t be that way – they should fetch me coffee and be subject to hazing gags involving taped down phones, or being sent to other offices to fetch email medium for the printer – but I’m pretty sure that voice is not mine.

Another part of me gets incredibly, perhaps irrationally defensive against that first voice. I’ve called out another reporter for taking an intern’s keyboard rather than requisitioning one when the reporter’s gummed up. I’ve spent hours counseling one student on how to deal with a callous contractor who hasn’t paid his stipends yet – three weeks in with rent coming due.

That gets my blood pressure up, but it’s not butterflies.

The pace picks up with interns around. Not only the perennial questions of why can’t we get them a working email and computer connection within a week, but the excitement they show when seeing the clean room, the integration and testing facility with it’s chamber of horrors and other awesome space-age facilities at Goddard. (Yes, there are digs here where you can get dead quick if you ignore the warning klaxons and evade the closed-circuit cameras – by freezing, by roasting, by pulling 30 Gs, by radiation, by vibration, by cranium-splitting bombardments of sound. It’s a wonderous place to work, and I would be surprised if there aren’t a few superhero mutants lurking about.)

Maybe it’s just that I am awed by so much raw, grasping, intellectual power being brought to bear on my world. They are not only learning their job, but learning about their job, about workplace politics, about social structures and pecking order, about the people who work here, and about me.

These are intelligent people.

I’ve been called reasonable; at my best I live up to that. I have aspired to be witty, though it’s not my natural state – I do well enough when surrounded by wits in an atmosphere that overlooks the occasional stumble.

That’s close to where it lives.

I am good at saying what I mean, but not always so good at choosing the most particular way to say it. It’s the reason I write.

If I think long and hard, I can usually skewer a concept, wrap it in bacon and roast it to perfection. It helps if I think while writing – speeds up the cogitation.

Surrounded by wits, I can be tempted to short circuit that process; to bring speed into the arena when strength of concept and sensitivity is needed.

I am ever concerned that I will be exposed as neither a nerd, nor a geek, but a great dork pretender: miles wide and an inch deep, surrounded by great thinkers, discoverers and learners passionate about whatever while I bumble along hiding a copy of Mad Magazine inside my Revised Short History of the Universe.

Something about that conviction runs deep down through my history, coursing through a dozen newsrooms. I can smell it in my first beat, the cold sweat, raw panic of cold calling an episcopal parish to write my first story about lightning damage to the church finials in downtown Upper Marlboro.

I don’t remember that interview – there was no absolution at the end. I do remember staring at my phone, mouthing a silent prayer, “Lord, please don’t let me hose this,” then, after the moment persistently refused to resolve itself into a bad dream, placing the call. I remember getting an answering machine and feeling like it as both a pardon from the governor and another sentence piled on.

I remember looking back at my second portfolio some years ago. I called Isaiah J. Poole and asked him what business he thought he had hiring me from that load of schlock. I had submitted a state-of-the-county speech story without a second voice – as one of my shining examples, no less.

What he said touched me, but didn’t help with the butterflies: “I didn’t hire you for what I read, but for what I saw you were capable of.”

Maybe he also factored in how cheaply I could be gotten – either way, Isaiah whipped me lovingly into shape. “Karl, I have no idea what you’re trying to say here. In 25-words or less, what’s the point of this story. … Good, now go write that and start from there.”

I do remember how many times he implied my job might be at stake if my writing and reporting didn’t improve – three.

And I remember doing the math with my third group of Baltimore Examiner interns. One quality internship like we ran would have put my skills at the level where I covered the Beltway Sniper for the Montgomery Journal (my first stint there). From the half-formed experimentation our interns started with, to the competent, one-story-a-day reporters we sent back in the fall translated to about four or five years of bumbling around 30,000 circulation local weeklies.

It also would have added up to $8,000 difference in starting pay.

So I try to do my best to be useful to these young, intelligent people. I need to be able to help them, because someone once helped me. It was painful as hell and sounded for all the world like a threat of unemployment at the time, but it was a hand up in a world where there didn’t seem to be a lot to go around.

It’s also why I don’t try to make these internships painless. Pain is a good teacher. Uncomfortable editing sessions, sharing a single monitor while I tear through their text line by line, explaining the deficiencies and the proper use cases equals lessons that sink in fast and take root deeply.

(Feature photo: Goddard Space Flight Center interns Grace Montalvo and Becky Strauss introduce fellow students to Felipe, the intern’s mascot at Celebrate Goddard day.)