Thursday, August 29, 2002

Kate Ruffner, 11

Asking the tough questions

        A couple of unrelated incidents this week put me firmly in my place, professionally speaking.

        The first was a call from the wonderful vet tech at the place where our cat Buster accepts his inoculations and where we took him as a perfect gentleman and he returned home as an imperfect gentleman, if you know what I mean. The woman said she liked something I'd written several months ago.

        “I always get caught up on your columns when I clean the cages,” she explained. It took me a minute to realize why the newspaper was so handy while she was performing this chore.

Foreign lessons

        A little miffed at being interchangeable with Tidy Cat, I felt better when I was included in a series of meetings with some visiting German reporters. They were here to learn more about American journalism. I was hoping to help educate them over an expensive lunch. A flurry of e-mails were sent, arranging meetings and interviews. At the last minute, the visiting professional journalists decided to go to Kings Island.

        Strike two.

        Then Kate Ruffner showed up at my office.

        This is the week before she starts the sixth grade at Woodland Elementary School in West Chester. She could have been swimming instead. That's something she likes to do. Or kayaking in Michigan, also a hobby. Her novel, she says, is unfinished. Or she could have been eating a funnel cake at Kings Island. She could have been training her 17-year-old cat, Schneuzen, to silently but decisively critique my abilities.

        But she called and made an appointment to come downtown to the offices of a newspaper because, although she's only 11 years old, she knows what she wants to do with her life. She wants to be a journalist.

        Kate Ruffner, 11, Girl Scout, pet owner and writer, spent a whole valuable morning in her valuable little life with me. It was a learning experience for one of us.

        She says she likes the idea that this work gives you license to ask questions. She is full of them.

        “I don't understand why so many people are poor,” she says. “I'd try to find the reasons.” Here's another thing: “When we're little, nobody notices if you're black or white. When we get older, we get more separate.” This puzzles Kate too, but she is thinking that if she had a chance to ask enough questions, she might figure out why this is.

        She has noticed, she says, that “kids who get picked on sometimes turn into bullies. I'd try to explain this to people,” she says. You're lucky, she told me, that you get the chance to do things like that. Lucky.

        And I squirm, thinking of the chances I squander.

        Anyway, I hope those lucky foreign journalists had a good time. I hope they won't be sorry they traded the chance to learn more about their profession for the chance to ride The Beast. I wish them well, but I'd choose Kate Ruffner to ask the hard questions.

        And I was grateful that she took the time to put me back in my place, professionally speaking.

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