I’ve never been on an overseas assignment. I’ve done a fair amount of travel around the country, mostly on sports assignments, but the desire to travel the world as a photojournalist was never something that burned in me. While most photojournalists of my era envisioned exotic National Geographic and world conflict newspaper assignments, and marveled at the international work being done by Washington Post and Boston Globe and other major newspaper photographers, I was always more interested in the work being done by photographers in their own communities. For me, it was the work of shooters for newspapers like the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat and Ithaca (New York) Journal and Bergen (New Jersey) Record that had my attention. Work that showed that great photojournalism opportunities existed in Every Town, USA. And, of course, there was what I considered the king of all, the Topeka (Kansas) Capital-Journal, specifically Brian Lanker’s Pulitzer winning story, “Moment of Life,” a hometown story about an everyday event in every community in America, the birth of a child. So simple, yet so powerful and groundbreaking.
So I was a community photographer, and I had no problem with that. I was never sent out of the country to do a story, but The Californian did send me back to school, to the first grade. In 1982 – 1983, I would shoot my first long-term project, “Room 21,” chronicling a year in a first grade class at Noble Elementary School in Bakersfield. Throughout the school year, reporter Christi Kennedy and I would attend classes, go on field trips, watch recess and have lunch and observe all the tiny, seemingly insignificant vignettes that in total make up a child’s year in first grade. Of course, we would grow close to the kids, and as the foggy winter days gave way to spring and the excitement of summer approached, I think we were sadder than they were that our project was coming to a close.
As the end of the school year neared, there was a bit of excitement. Who would get to keep Clyde Noble? Clyde was the class mascot, a small stuffed dog that was as much a member of the class as the students and their teacher. Students would take turns caring for Clyde throughout the year. They would take turns bringing him home, they would study with him, they would do their homework with him at their side, they would take him on their trips, they would eat their lunches with him, clean him if his furry coat got dirty. But only one of the students would get to take Clyde home for good at the end of the school year. They would have to choose. Christi and I were excited to see who that would be, too. On the last day of school, the moment arrived. It was time to say goodbye to Clyde. Peggy Couch asked for my attention. I looked up to see two members of the class, one clutching Clyde in her tiny hands, walking toward me. I could see a little trepidation, a tinge of sadness in their eyes. She reached out to me with her two hands still clutching Clyde. The class had decided. Clyde was going home with me. This, my friends, I did not expect. “Don’t worry,” I told them. “I’ll take good care of Clyde.”
And take good care of Clyde I have. He occupies a space in my book case in his own room, next to another prize possession, the Kermit the Frog reporter coffee mug my mom bought me when I was in college because I loved “The Muppet Movie” so much. Clyde Noble is by far the most cherished memento of my journalism career. I even had a tuxedo made for him once and took him to a wedding. If my house ever caught fire, Clyde would be the first thing I would save. He is a constant reminder of those early days, my skills still developing, working in a vibrant newsroom, telling simple stories about simple things. Things we take for granted, yet can be so meaningful to so many people. Community photojournalism. I’ve never regretted it for a minute.
One of the best things about this site is I’ve been hearing from the people I’ve photographed over the years. Hopefully, I’ll hear from some of the “Room 21” kids. Did T.J. Perez become that doctor? Did Maria Rodriguez and Laura Stout remain friends? Who got married? Who has families? They’d all be in their late 30s now. That by itself is almost impossible to believe.