I keep a picture of Tamika McNeill at my desk. It keeps me focused.
Tamika was 12 when classmates from Cleveland Elementary School in North Philadelphia grabbed her, forced their hands inside her shirt and tried to fondle her breasts. They threatened to attack her if she told the truth. School officials didn’t report the incident for months. Tamika thought about killing herself.
I remember sitting in her living room, listening to Tamika struggle to articulate the terrible things that had been done to her, things that no child should have to endure, especially at school.
Tamika’s story became part of Assault on Learning, the investigative series on Philadelphia school violence that recently earned The Inquirer the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for public service, the highest honor our profession offers. I spent more than a year reporting and writing that series along with colleagues Jeff Gammage, Dylan Purcell, Susan Snyder and John Sullivan, plus editors, photographers, graphic designers and multimedia specialists. At times, it was a struggle, but on the tough days, I thought about Tamika.
My colleagues and I were proud that our series spurred change and perhaps even made things better for kids like Tamika; that was why we wrote it. But winning the Pulitzer was an extraordinary moment for me, and for the whole newsroom, which has been through tremendous turmoil over the past few years. The public service gold medal is a staff award, and it really was the effort of many people that made our Pulitzer possible.
Many people have asked me about that moment when we discovered we won, and here’s what I remember: gathering at Sue Snyder’s desk to check for news with the whole newsroom was gathered around us. Obsessively refreshing my Twitter feed, because I guessed that was where news would come first. It did, and when I found out, I shouted, “Someone said we won!” (Way to verify a source there, Graham!) and the newsroom erupted.
There were speeches and the sound of champagne corks popping. I called my husband, who could hardly hear me over the happy shouts of my colleagues. I couldn’t stop hugging people; I felt incredibly lucky and proud and dazed. My family rushed into the newsroom, my 7-year-old niece’s eyes wide at the sight of the celebration.
I thought of my late grandmother, Miriam Becker Metzger, who scrubbed floors and wrote for a newspaper to work her way through college at a time when women didn’t really attend college. I thought of the Philadelphia public school teachers and Temple University journalism professors who nurtured me as a writer. I flashed back to the time when my aunt asked me to autograph a copy of my first “real” published story, printed in the Northeast Breeze when I was a teenager. “I want to keep this for when you win the Pulitzer,” she told me. I laughed, because who ever heard of a bookworm from Northeast Philadelphia winning the Pulitzer?
The celebration has continued.
Shane Victorino, my favorite Phillie, congratulated me on Twitter, and then he called me, thanks to a kind colleague who arranged it. (And yes, I’m still making jokes about how I have to check everything with my BFF Shane.) I heard from people I love and people I’ve never met, calling and writing with congratulations. It has been lovely. It has been a dream.
But I’m still thinking about Tamika, and how our work is not done.