On journalism, or sepia seaweed

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One birthday, my friend offered to take me out in a 420 class dinghy on the San Francisco Bay.

In anticipation of the Big Day, I practiced knots on twine. I perused eBay for affordable sport glasses — black-rimmed and polarized. I gargled salt water and Googled “kelp.”

Initially eager to initiate me into her world of neoprene booties and spray-slick wetsuits — the world of competitive youth sailing — my friend carefully reneged when my birthday rolled around a month later.

While she was willing to navigate her own body through piers and rocks and gray water, she wasn’t willing to hurl mine. We could die, she said.

I imagined my sports glasses sinking into the sepia seaweed of the depths I would not explore.

I often imagine how the harsh wind she described would have felt against my face. After experiencing blowback over an article I penned senior year, I decided it would have been like that: fast, vicious, grating.

My high school, a prisonlike structure nestled in the oft-burnt and nostalgically rural hills of Moraga, wrongly considered itself a beacon of educational light. Yes, my graduating class had 50-plus honor roll students. And yes, we regularly sent students to top schools. Most of them, however, were athletes recruited for physical, rather than intellectual, prowess.

Even by California’s wake-and-bake standards, Exeter we were not.

I liked my high school. I befriended brilliant teachers and made good grades. I was on the newspaper. I started a club. I learned to write a decent essay. I maintained a pleasant if somewhat anti-social existence.

Last January, however, I became the target of the elements that most poorly represented our school. The element whose ignorance of the effects of chlorine caused the recent manslaughter — err, shark-slaughter — of a baby hammerhead for a senior prank. The element that wanted to STOMP our rival high school.

I wrote an article voicing what I saw as the unfairness of athletes receiving preferential treatment in the university admissions process, alluding specifically to our class’s Harvard-bound crew star.

My classmates didn’t like it. In fact, they really didn’t like it.

I was asked about the article at my interview for Yale, a school from which I was later — albeit deservingly — rejected. I lost the chance to deliver a graduation speech, which was decided by popular vote. My boyfriend’s car was keyed.

I might have been sued for libel had my subject — bless her Nike-shorts-wearing, Dutch-braided heart — cared enough to levy charges.

She didn’t.

That blowback, however, is nothing compared to what professional journalists face every day.

The Capital Gazette shooting didn’t introduce me to the dangers of journalism. I had earlier read about a Russian journalist who, beaten by unknown thugs, was robbed first of his freedom of speech and then of his life. I followed the Kim Wall trial.

But when a friend from writing camp — 5-foot-2, honey-blonde — told me she wanted to become a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, I was still floored. Conjuring up unwelcoming deserts and the orange jumpsuits of ISIS execution videos, I saw her aspirations as dangerous and reckless. Even suicidal.

I saw what she wanted to do as distinctly different from what I was doing.

Because at the time, my journalism was confined to a 5-by-8-yard room lined with iMacs. My journalism might upset a few stoners — might cost me a friend with whom to share pad thai — but never did it lead me to see myself, to steal from Ernest Hemingway, dead in the rain.

And then a gunman charged the office belonging to a small, local, American newspaper publisher — the Capital Gazette.

I saw then that I had lost a friend over my article, a sailing champion with purple kimchi and great stories, but that my loss was small compared to what it might have been under other circumstances: an arm, a leg, my life. I saw that I could easily have been the battered Russian journalist, or one at the Capital Gazette kneeling from a gunshot.

I saw that I could have been at a loss not for a pair of super cool polarized sports glasses, but for a head.

The big question, of course, is why. Why subject oneself to undue danger? Why participate in a field that, even in America, can become a minefield?

Why journalism?

The real answer is too long. The short one? That I like who I am when I’m reporting. That I don’t much mind the wind.

Contact Alexandra Reinecke at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @arhine9.