My first attempts at music journalism are documented in the fanzines I published in high school.  In college I pitched multiple ideas to discouraging male editors at the University of Maryland newspaper until promising them a Public Enemy interview got them to give me a chance. They agreed to run it if I could get it, and I assured them it’d be a piece of cake (all while knowing nothing about the publicity machine or even how to contact the band). It all worked out in the end—a kindly Def Jam publicist hooked me up and my story ran—never mind that my tape recorder died mid-interview with Flava Flav. (Lesson learned.)

Twenty years later, I am a published author, freelance writer and adjunct English instructor. My English Composition classes are writing profiles of interesting people or places from their lives; the instructions were to interview someone living and preferably not a celebrity, unless they “happen to have access to one.” In individual conferences, they pitched me their ideas—colorful stories of mothers recovering from drug addiction, boyfriends in prison, cancer survivors, war refugees, neighborhood mentors and kindly grandmothers.  One student wanted to write about rapper/singer MIA, and said she’d emailed her manager as soon as I’d announced the assignment. I shared that I was a fan, too, but advised she come up with a fall-back plan “just in case,” because many times celebrities are busy and don’t answer such requests, especially when not associated with a major media outlet. She agreed, and wrote a good paper about the city of New Orleans, where she’d spent some time as an AmeriCorps volunteer after Hurricane Katrina. The day after she’d shown me her rough-draft, two days before the deadline for their final papers, she waited for me after class to blurt her excitement about MIA finally answering her interview request by email. “She answered all of my questions and talked about her non-profit organization. And I got a quote from her manager about her, too,” she said. ‘Secondary source quotes’ were highly encouraged in my guidelines, but so far no one else had gone to the trouble.

“Very cool!” I shrieked in happiness for her. The student wanted to know if she could turn in this profile instead of the place one she’d written. I said of course—that it was her call. “Or could I turn in both?” she asked. “I’m really pumped to write this one now.”

“I can only give you a grade for one but I could hold the other for extra credit in case you need it later in the semester,” I said. “And it never hurts to write what you’re passionate about.” She smiled like she’d just won the lottery, and skipped off saying “Thank you! Thank you!”

Her triumph made my week. It’s funny that I find myself in the position of authority now…hopefully not as discouraging as some of those editors were to me. The willingness of MIA to answer a young girl’s interview request pleasantly surprised me, but the initiative and enthusiasm of my student impressed me more. Her drive alone erased the anger I’d held for slacker students earlier in the semester, filling my heart with something like hope. Maybe some teenagers are still creating their own fun, making their own paths. Maybe technology can help crumble the imaginary wall between artist and audience. In this girl’s eyes, I saw myself. Maybe the spirit of punk’s never been dead—we just grew up and haven’t been paying attention.