Presscon season

IT’S that time of the year again. I refer to the annual Schools Press Conference organized by the Department of Education and participated in by thousands of young campus journalists. 
Whether or not the children actually pursue careers in journalism is another thing. For now, the students who are writers for their school newspapers and generally among the top performers in their class, gather in one school alongside their counterparts and compete in their respective categories:  newswriting, editorial writing, feature writing, editorial cartoon drawing, sportswriting, copyreading and headline writing, photojournalism. There are other collaborative, tech-based categories that have emerged, as well. 
The months of September and October are normally for the division-level competitions. This means that students from within the same cities are pitted against each other. Ten winners are chosen from a city, who will then advance to the regional finals. Again, ten will be chosen who will advance to the nationals. This now provides an opportunity for the students to travel; contest venue for the last stage moves from region to region; last year, the final rounds were held in Koronadal, South Cotabato. 
The “presscon” occasions good memories, personal ones. As a high school campus writer I used to compete in the same contest, under different categories (feature writing sophomore year, editorial writing junior year, and newswriting senior year) and reaching different levels of success. In my time at the nationals, though, the venue was NCR. Not much travel there—but I got to spend a full week billetted at the spacious Rizal High School in Pasig.  
These days, every year for the past six or seven years I have been fortunate to be a speaker/judge in some of the contest categories. There are many from the industry who do the same, perhaps out of a sense of civic duty to act as mentors to the young. I do it whenever I can because I see myself in every student who is eager to learn to write better. 
The apparent continued links with this event has given rise to some realizations. 
Foremost, that school paper advisers are silent heroes. These are the ones who spend long hours after school and on weekends to train the student writers. Sometimes, they fork out money from their own pockets during contest dates when funding from the school is slow in coming. They also get all the pressure to deliver. And on days when traffic or the weather is bad, they also end up bringing the students home to their worried parents. 
And if the adviser is truly something else, he or she can influence the student to pursue a career in the field—as my own late school paper adviser, Reynaldo Binuya, did. 
Second, judging is hard. At first glance it appears easy; you’re a professional, anyway, and you are used to deadlines. But think of the implications of your actions: your decisions can make or break a young person’s dreams. One must not take light the duty of judiciously choosing who deserves to move on to the next level—and who needs more practice. 
I have also observed how competitive some teachers, principals and divisions/regions can be. Certainly there must be some form of incentive for finishing among the best in the country. But teachers and education officials must check themselves every so often – is it truly just about winning and not the journey to become good journalists, per se? They have to be sure they are imparting the right message to the children they train. 
Finally, like any other adolescent experience, participation in the presscon is always a source of happy thoughts. You spend some time away from home and feel a measure of independence. You meet people. You gain friends. There is a bit of courtship. I personally know of a couple who met each other during the contest; they have now been married for almost two decades and have two lovely children. As for exploring new places, it was during the presscon that I got to try the skating rink at the then-newly opened SM Megamall—but that’s betraying my age. 
As I wrote a few weeks ago, the youth are sometimes unfairly portrayed as indifferent, entitled and narcissistic. This contest is proof that the generalization is wrong. Young people can be socially aware and articulate.  Their training and experience in campus journalism will ensure they will pursue integrity, excellence and diligence—whatever path they do decide to take later on in their lives.