At 18, I wrote an article for a national newspaper and got published for the first time in The Toronto Star. The byline in high school came to me via a group called Young People’s Press. In the late 90s, This now-defunct organization worked with the Star on a section every Wednesday called Young Street (har har) where they gave teen writers a chance to share their opinions and hard journalism. This section was truly groundbreaking because there were few opportunities for Canadian youth to get published, beyond OWL! Magazine and library contests.
I started nosing around journalism in high school and decided to give YPP a try. I pitched an idea about the lack of faith within Jewish youth, a trend I started noticing in grade 9 among my buddies. We were being raised to respect Judaism, to go to synagogue, sure, but did many of us want to continue following anything our parents told us after we left home?
Within a week, YPP green-lit the story and I freaked out for a solid 24 hours, both out of joy and stress. Oh wait, now I actually have to interview my friends and rabbis and oh wow this is happening!
Fast-forward three weeks and the article went live on the site and in print. The confidence bursting felt euphoric. I felt like I could start freelancing for Wired and Toronto Life. I was all smiled at my high school, getting high-fives from friends and appreciate sentiments from teachers. But what came after my first byline was even more fulfilling than this landmark gig.
I'm at Ryerson journalism school in 2002, my final year there, when Chris at YPP called me to propose to me something I never thought I’d ever do.
“Dave, you want to be an advice columnist for a new project we’re launching?” He went on to explain they wanted to publish a syndicated advice column called Confidentially Yours, where a male and female advice columnist would answer questions from teens around Canada. The topics would range from relationships to family drama to school challenges to drug use to bullying.
“Yes, I’m in!” I answered Chris, my shocked face shifting into an expression that could only be the facial equivalent of double fist-pumps to the sky.
I worked with Jewel Kats on Confidentially Yours for three years, where I fielded questions weekly, save for the summer months. It’s a strange feeling to be an advice columnist at 22, 23, dishing tips to teens not much younger than you. I guess a part of me thought an advice columnist had to be wizened like Dr. Ruth or planning to major in social work. After all, as Dan Savage once said, an advice columnist doesn’t need any particular qualification beyond being asked to give advice.
I took this job very seriously, more than any job I had, the most recent being a three-monther at Blinds To Go that revealed to me how unsuited I was for retail. So when writing a column – and this wasn't for school, for marks! – came into my life, something sparked in me. I knew what it was after a year or so: I loved writing AND helping people. To do both at once, it just seemed too good to be truly my life.
What was wild about Confidentially Yours is how it was syndicated across Canada and the U.S. The scope of people I've hopefully helped blew me away. The column ran in newspapers, in their own youth sections, repping cities such as Halifax, Victoria, Calgary, Austin, Minneapolis, Sacramento, Des Moines, New York and Albany.
I remember answering a few questions about bullying, and they broke my heart. I thankfully didn’t face that kind of violence in school, but I remember not doing anything about it when I saw such intimidation happen in front of me. That guilt wound its way into a reply to one of the teens asking about bullying, and that was a CY column I won’t ever forget. It not only let me be vulnerable and honest in a way I never was before, but it also encouraged me to find another way to express myself. One of my most well-known spoken word poems focuses on that shame I felt when I saw bullies push around my classmates and I didn’t step in to help them.
When YPP folded three years into my CY column, a chapter from my early writing career came to a sighing close. I wasn’t disappointed the column was over. It had a good run, and it ended on a nice parting note, with Jewel and I saying goodbye in a final column. We both knew we did our part to help some kids who were unsure how to navigate into adult mode.
And well…did I? I was sorting it out myself too. Maybe that’s why CY appealed to some youth. They were getting advice from someone who freshly experienced what they might have gone through, even if the context of my situations may have been different from theirs. One teen asked me about trying marijuana, and and I remember refraining from joining any joint circles at the age of the teen. I knew about the peer pressure, even just the internal stress put on oneself about being part of your social crew by taking part in the latest thing. And hopefully my answer made him feel less alone.
When you look back at your past jobs, what do you see? A ladder taking you to where you are now, or maybe a playground slide that encouraged you to step outside your comfort zone, even if it weren’t something you’d be doing over and over, forever more? Or maybe you see a funhouse mirror, where you can spot different angles of yourself suddenly presented in a new light, but you aren’t exactly sure which reflection is truly the you’est of you?
My years as an advice columnist propelled me into seeing writing as a full-time career, while also spinning me around so I can see an emerging side of myself, the empathetic boy who would soon be a more giving man, as I decided to sacrifice an enormous amount of time to bring spoken word to the suburbs.
But that’s for another day, for another blog post.
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