Brandon Dudley is a former Editor-in-Chief of The Retriever (’02-’03). He is now a writer who teaches high school English in Maine.
My four years at The Retriever Weekly were marked by a number of incredible, positive moments and I think of them often now, well over a decade later. But it’s the mistakes I made there that I think of most often, one in particular. It was a typical Monday production day during my first year of college—long days editing proofs bleeding into a late night going over edits and corrections with the page designers, tightening up headlines and writing last-minute captions. Those days were hectic but invigorating and always included stress- or exhaustion-induced jokes, most too stupid or filthy to print in the pages we were there to create.
I was looking over the shoulder of a page designer, writing a caption for the men’s soccer photo. In it, two players hugged, celebrating a victory. I pointed to it and said “What fags.”
Nate, one of the photographers, was sitting next to me and he cringed and grew quiet. My face flushed as I mumbled an apology.
I knew, hypothetically, that the words I wrote and said could have power. Nate was the first gay guy I’d ever really been friends with. I’d grown up in a small, conservative town, in a Southern Baptist church that taught that being gay was a sin. I’d grown up hearing “fag” and other slurs thrown around all the time. I’m not sure I ever really questioned it before that night, when I witnessed the hurt it created.
That moment didn’t cause some magical overnight transformation. I said and did and wrote a number of stupid things after that. But that moment started the long work of questioning my beliefs and prejudices. The vast array of people that I worked with at TRW, people I’m still proud to know and call friends, helped me continue that hard work and helped me grow into a drastically different person by the time I graduated.
During my time, TRW was a place that did a lot of good. We shed light on a number of major issues on campus, were a source of news and entertainment and we helped craft the campus identity. But it was also a place where a motley, diverse group of young people had the chance to make mistakes, in real life and in print. Maybe that’s where the true value of TRW lies: as an institution that gives young people the opportunity to screw up and be held responsible, each mistake and correction taking them one step closer to adulthood, to accountability and to tolerance. My fellow staff members pushed me forward in ways I never expected and changed me in ways I could never have anticipated. I’m sure so many others can say the same thing.
So, I think often of that night and I cringe even now, more than fifteen years later. But I also cringe to think of the person I would be if not for that place on that night, that opportunity to screw up and that opportunity to grow.