What a room full of girls taught me about the profession

Merilee Johnson

By Merilee Johnson

As I looked out at the expectant, inquisitive eyes of a room full of 8- to 12-year-old girls, I came to the realization this was going to be a challenge more difficult than I had anticipated. Presenting to professional colleagues can be intimidating enough, but what could I offer these young minds whose only image of a court reporter (if they had one at all) is of a person sitting to the side of the action, “typing” quietly in the corner?

What I had envisioned as a breezy conversation (accepted on a whim) changed in focus to promoting and recruiting for the future of our profession. I needed to both capture their attention and convey that reporting is an empowering and fulfilling career. If I can’t impart that message here and now, how can we bring young people into the industry?

And how did I find myself in this position? About a month prior, a friend asked me to participate in their church’s career month, an admirable effort on their part to present the congregation’s youth girls firsthand experience with possible career paths. I’d accepted immediately as I thought of it as more of a personal favor to a friend, filling a time slot they needed filled. It was only when I walked in the church doors on that fateful Wednesday night that the broader implications became clear.

As I stood in front of these earnest eyes, I realized I needed to scrap the PowerPoint, scrap any facts and figures about the shortage we’re facing and how much reporters can make, and took a chance at speaking their language. I start the presentation with, “Raise your hand if you like creating worlds in Minecraft. How about learning another language? Who likes to play an instrument? Who likes hearing or reading stories? Who likes to learn, without having to do homework?”

Hands flung in the air with a level of enthusiasm only achievable by a group of young girls, and I shared with them that these are very much like the things I get to enjoy every day as a court reporter and captioner.

I explained that I knew a second language called “shorthand theory” and felt them lean in as I pulled out my writer. As I started writing, I showed them how I was pressing multiple keys at once, like you would a chord on a piano. I told them that I’d written a code, like you do in Minecraft, that allows my computer to translate those chords into English. As the words appeared on the screen, an audible “Whoa” could be heard. One nine-year-old exclaimed with her voice (and motioning with her hands), “You. Are. Awesome!” (which, of course, I captioned).

Having captured their attention, the obvious next step was to let them fall in love with reporting the same way the rest of us did. I invited them to come up and (carefully) put their hands on the writer and let the writer work its magic. Quickly, the concept of “carefully” was out the door as their curious faces huddled around the writer and they energetically started to push the keys. Like many of us, the moment their hands touched the writer, they had an unparalleled desire to learn how to write on it.

So, one by one, I taught each girl how to steno their own names, which elevated the thrill as they saw their names up on the projected screen. One girl’s misstroke produced the word “poop,” which, if they weren’t already in an excited frenzy, pushed them over the top and resulted in peals of laughter. It served as a reminder that in the quest to capture the attention of youth, the high road isn’t the only path. I used it as a teaching moment to let them know that even the best writers have mistrans, and that’s okay!

We wrapped up the session, and the girls reluctantly allowed me to pack up my equipment. As I did, I reflected on the fact that our profession is intrinsically interesting and, if properly communicated, can easily capture the enthusiasm of young people. Walking out the doors, I took with me a strong sense of optimism for the future of reporting and additional pride that these girls had given me. They reminded me that we can smile at our mistakes and even on our “poopy” days, what we get to do every day “is awesome.”

Merilee S. Johnson, RDR, CRR, CRC, who has also earned NCRA’s Realtime Systems Administrator certificate, is a captioner base in Eden Prairie, Minn. She can be reached at msjreporter@outlook.com.