By Caitlin Kelly
The other day, I received an email from a young friend I met in Tucson a few years ago and who has since gone on to work in Nigeria, teach English in Turkey, do volunteer work in Mexico, compete for a London-based fellowship and intern at CNN in Atlanta.
He only graduated last May.
Nor is he a person of privilege, quite the opposite, making his trajectory even more impressive.
His email thanked me for my belief in him.
We had had a long and deeply personal conversation during a student program I was teaching in. I was touched he trusted me enough to ask my advice and was happy to give it.
It made me stop and think about the people who’ve shown their belief in me along the way and how that trust and confidence in my skills and strengths kept me going when I thought I couldn’t.
While some of today’s millennials have won trophies for showing up and some have been told Good job! for almost everything they do, I’m a Boomer from a challenging and demanding family. Everyone is a high achiever and kudos were not the norm. So the people named here made a serious difference in my life.
I know that I know how to photograph. It’s hard to take creative risks without some encouragement!
My high school art teacher, who allowed us to use her first name. Funny, warm, down to earth, she saw how troubled and unhappy I was, (bullied every day there for years), but she nurtured and appreciated my talents for drawing, painting and photography. I needed a safe place to be good at something, and to be liked, even on my worst days. She offered it and belief in someone who might not be bullied forever.
A friend of my father
He loaned me a Pentax SLR camera, knowing I wanted to become a photographer. Even more generously, he told me about an annual contest, open to anyone in Toronto to submit their images of the city to Toronto Calendar magazine — which used them as their sole cover image. Still in high school, I sold three of mine. That boosted my confidence in a way no high school grade ever could have.
I started selling my writing to national magazines when I was 19, still an undergraduate at university. I still can’t quite imagine what they thought of the kid who showed up in their offices with a multi-page list of story ideas I went through until they finally said yes to one of them.
Or sent me out to report stories I’d never done before — like sitting in the open door of an airplane to watch a skydiver or calling the German headquarters of Adidas for a story about running shoes. I was hired at 26 as a staff reporter for the Globe & Mail, Canada’s best national newspaper, without a minute of daily newspaper experience after eight years’ freelancing for them and my editors there sent me out on major stories that ran front page, terrifying me but giving me opportunities to grow, learn and shine.
Once in your life, if you’re lucky, you meet the right person at just the right moment. Not romantically, but in a much deeper sense.
A former Resistance hero, he was the founder of a Paris-based journalism fellowship I was selected to participate in, (and also founder of a home for wayward boys; Glenans, a sailing school, and a major daily newspaper.) He introduced me to everyone, proudly, as “Le terrible Caitlin!” — which I thought rude until I realized it meant terrific.
I was 25, desperate to somehow get a great journalism job, to build my skills and self-confidence. To have someone so incredibly accomplished like me and deeply believe in my potential? He did, for which I’m forever grateful.
I’ve had some amazing adventures as a journalist. I’ve spent a week crewing on a Tall Ship and sailed with an Americas Cup crew.
The best adventure (so far!) was in March 2014 when I joined a multi-media team in rural Nicaragua for a week’s reporting on the work of WaterAid there. We worked in 95-degree heat in Spanish and Miskitu and became so close that we all stay in touch still. It means a lot to me that clients trust me to tell their stories.
My fencing coach
How cool was it to be coached by a two-time Olympian? Amazing!
I had arrived in New York with no job/friends/family/college alumni — and had to re-start my journalism career at 30.
I landed in Manhattan, a hotbed of fencing talent. My coach, who was teaching the sport at NYU, was a former Navy man, who decided after a year or so of our mediocre foil fencing to turn a small group of women, then in our mid 30s, into sabre fencers. This was unheard of — and we couldn’t even progress beyond nationals because there was then no higher-level competition available to women.
It meant learning a new weapon, new ways of thinking and behaving on the strip, and most of all, simply being willing to try something that looked weird and impossible at first.
His faith and belief in us — much deeper than any we had in ourselves! — was truly transformative. I went on to become nationally ranked for four years, happily surprised at what you can do when someone sees talent within you, pushes you hard to develop it and celebrates the results.
My first agent
I found him through a friend. Quiet and soft-spoken, he took me to lunch at one of the city’s most elegant restaurants, Balthazar, where we ordered Kumamotos. (Oysters. I had no idea!)
I wanted more than anything to write non-fiction books, to do deep, national reporting on complicated subjects. Ambitious stuff. Finding an agent isn’t easy — you need to like, trust and respect one another, knowing you’re entwining your reputation and career with theirs.
And when an agent takes on a new writer, one who has yet to even publish a book, they’re gambling on a raft of things: your skill, your determination, your ethics, your ability to see it through to the end.
He fought hard for my first book as 25 publishers said no, some quite rudely. It did sell, and we’re now working together once more on my third book proposal.
She’s opened her home to me for decades and treated me as family, even though we met professionally when she was a PR rep in Toronto and I wrote about the organization she worked with. After I became a victim of crime here in New York, she let me stay in her Toronto home for three weeks to recover to decide if I would come back to the U.S.
My husband, a fellow journalist, has been-there-done-it-seen-it-all — he’s won a Pulitzer Prize for editing 9/11 photos for The New York Times, photographed three Presidents as an eight-year member of the White House Press Corps, covered two Olympics, several Superbowls, the end of the Bosnian war. He knows what excellence in our field looks like and demands.
His faith in me — even as our industry has lost 40 percent of its staff since 2008 — is enormous. He’s seen me write two books, (with two tired fingers!), and encourages me every day to take even more creative risks.
Who believes — or believed — in you along the way?
What did they say or do that kept you going?