Me, myself and Mary Lou

Maxine Giller takes a selfie with instructor Mary Lou Song. Photo by Maxine Giller

When I first met my instructor, Mary Lou Song, I was terrified of her. She stands at an intimidating 4 feet, 11 inches tall. However, she compensates for her lack of height with a list of accomplishments that is taller than she is.

My first one-on-one interaction with Mary Lou happened during a lede writing class. I handed her my ninth lede draft, hoped that I had finally gotten it down and waited for her to deliver the news. Right when she announced I was one word away from completion, my eyes dried up and one of my contact lenses popped out of my eye.

Not wanting to quit and leave a bad first impression, I hobbled around half-blind for the next 20 minutes, bumping into walls and other cherubs in my quest to finish my lede. I left the building that night proud of myself for completing the assignment but also convinced my instructor now thought I was insane.

That first experience combined with the anxiety I already felt early in the program left me a nervous wreck for our first one-on-one meeting that Saturday. However, I resolved not to show any of my inner turmoil and put on a brave front.

I marched into the Starbucks on Sherman Avenue prepared for any type of interrogation. After I spotted Mary Lou talking with another cherub at a long wooden table near the coffee bar, I chose a seat at the opposite end and anxiously waited, foot tapping in time to the music blaring from my headphones.

Finally, she beckoned me over. I sat opposite her while she typed into her laptop for a minute. With each tapping of a key, I grew more stressed. Was she judging me? Was she ignoring me? Was she going to hate me? Finally she looked up, folded her hands and asked me why I wanted to come to the program. At this point, I was so pent up with stress that I ended up blurting out around 20 random phrases before I actually made a coherent sentence.

Ordinarily, this flub would have left me paralyzed for the rest of the meeting, but Mary Lou laughed and moved on, seemingly unaffected by my word vomit. As the meeting progressed, I got more comfortable and began to laugh along with her. We talked about everything from family to school to random anecdotes. We even laughed about my terrible lede-writing experience. Suddenly, 45 minutes had passed and another cherub was sitting at the end of the table, impatiently waiting.

I walked out of the meeting feeling lighter than I had all week. My instructor did not appear to hate me, which was all the confidence I needed to carry me into the next meeting.

The next meeting was at Colectivo Coffee. After the first five minutes, we had wrapped up all items related to writing, so we shared dog pictures and talked about our lives back home. The third meeting was moved back to Starbucks, where we continued to share random blurbs interspersed with things related to actual journalism. By the time the fourth meeting rolled around, I felt so at ease that I actually looked forward to it, which is a rarity for my socially anxious self.

While the meetings were fun, they also gave me the opportunity to ask questions about my work without a group of 83 people watching me. I found myself asking more questions in those 30 minutes than I did during the entire week. They gave me a chance to grow as a journalist and the chance to get to know Mary Lou, which I will value long after this program is done.