By John Ensslin, 2011-12 SPJ President | May 29th, 2012
Leave it to me to learn the hard way about the importance of shedding cultural stereotypes.
I nearly made an embarrassing mistake earlier this month while covering the graduation ceremony of Bergen Community College.
The commencement exercises took place inside a large area that once had been used for professional hockey and basketball.
With over 2,100 graduates to chose from, it was not hard to find one interesting student on whom to focus .
The valedictorian, an aspiring art therapist, had a great story to tell when she pointed out that her graduation came exactly 10 years to the day that her mom left Ecuador to find a life of better opportunity for her two young children in northern New Jersey.
The student gave a very heartfelt, emotional speech, and I hustled into the audience to interview her mom.
So I was feeling pretty good when I returned to the floor of the arena where a publicist for the college pointed out another story: One graduate had proposed marriage to another while picking up their diplomas.
A volunteer helped me locate the couple in a sea of blue caps and gowns, and I did a quick interview.
The student was named Jess, who wore a nice red tie, told me in a husky voice about getting down on one knee. That was the signal for a group of friends to unfurl a banner that read “Will you marry me?”
The other student, named Melissa, said yes.
That was pretty nervy in front of all these people, I suggested.
“You have no idea,” Jess replied.
So I wrote the story feeling pretty good about how it turned out. But then several hours later, my editor called.
The photographer — a much better observer then me — noticed that Jess, who I identified as a guy, was a woman. Jess was short for Jessica, not Jesse.
Fortunately we fixed it before publication. But afterward, it made me realize the extent to which my cultural blinders were in place.
Granted the interview was brief, and they were both wearing gowns. But in an era where marriage equality is a hot-button topic, I should know better than to assume that “couple” and “marriage proposal” means a man and a woman.
It drove home the point to me how important it is to consider one’s own cultural assumptions and be more observant.
Next time I’ll know better. Plus, I owe the photographer a beer.