I have an Alligator ‘a’ tattooed on my right forearm, and many of my friends and family thought it was a terrible idea. But it’s been about a year and a half since I got that bulky black ‘a’ sewn into my skin forever, and just yesterday, I looked down at it while showering and thought, “Man, this was a great idea.”
I unfortunately can’t claim credit for it — I don’t know how long it’s been happening, but I know several former Alligator writers and editors who also bear the unmistakable marker. And with my last byline in the publication that will quite literally stay with me for the rest of my time on Earth, I want to address why I — and some others, I imagine — felt compelled to pay $60 to have a plain black ‘a’ embroidered on my skin. Why that simple symbol that means nothing to just about anyone who sees it means everything to me.
It starts with direction. I arrived at UF in fall 2014 as a journalism major with no experience in journalism whatsoever. My parents will tell you my favorite catchphrase back then was, “It’s good enough,” because I said it after submitting my half-assed assignments that I didn’t really care about. All I knew starting college was that I liked writing and I liked sports, so I figured I’d give sports writing a try.
I applied for the Alligator in spring of 2015, and then-sports editor Jordan McPherson and assistant sports editor Graham Hall hired me over two future Alligator editor-in-chiefs for reasons I still haven’t really figured out. Thank God they did, though.
I started as a copy editor, and in the fall I became the cross country writer. I enjoyed the work and soon enough was promoted to women’s basketball writer. Then, at the end of the semester, sports-editor-to-be Ian Cohen sent me a text message asking if I wanted to be his assistant for the coming semester.
I learned later that he offered me the job because about four other people rejected him first, but hey, I wasn’t complaining. I accepted immediately, still unsure if I wanted to pursue sports journalism but enjoying the ride. The direction finally came that spring, while working with Ian and managing online editor Emily Cochrane on a feature story.
I’d written feature stories before, but this was the first one that was really dissected and torn apart. I still have the comments saved — “ughhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. cliche as hell.” “this whole paragraph is unnecessary, and makes my soul sad.” “If I took a shot every time you used the word figurative, I’d be hella drunk rn.”
It was one of the worst days of my life.
It was one of the best days of my life.
Because of that editing, which took place past midnight in an old frat house-turned-newspaper-building full of asbestos and mice running up and down wires into random holes in the wall, I discovered a real passion for human-interest storytelling.
It sounds so cliche to say that, but it’s honest. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t doing something to make it “good enough.” I was doing something because it moved me in a way that nothing else had, in a way that gave me the opportunity to impact other people with my work.
That first story led me to pursue other in-depth pieces that explored uniting human principles of dreams, determination and fragility. Whether I succeeded or failed at addressing those themes is up for debate, but regardless, working at the Alligator is what made me passionate about addressing those themes in the first place.
Plus I was working with people who, even if their passions weren’t the same as mine, were passionate about something. Sports. Rights. Equality. Justice. Just about every co-worker in my 3.5 years at the paper has had their own passion and a willingness to explore it with their own voice. I encourage all five people still reading this to seek that out in their own lives — doing so has brought me more happiness and fulfillment than I imagined possible when I started college.
In her short story “The Age of Discretion,” French philosopher Simone De Beauvoir wrote, “Making money does not seem to me a very elevating ambition.” Lord knows I will likely never make much money as a reporter, and most of my colleagues at the Alligator would probably agree. But as De Beauvoir alludes to, I don’t give a f---. And that was not an easy summit to reach.
It goes back to wanting to be “good enough” — for what, exactly? I suppose to make money and live comfortably. The Alligator helped me overcome that and find a passion for something greater than money and ambition alone, and then it reinforced that passion with six enthusiastic friends having dinner at Calhoun’s On The River in Knoxville, Tennessee, prior to the Gators playing UT, or with the whole newsroom popping champagne at the end of another long semester, or with the nightly food runs to Leonardo’s and Five Guys and Kabab House that caused me to gain 20 pounds (no exaggeration) since freshman year, or with the friends and challenges that will inspire me for a lifetime.
Nothing — not a falling out, any argument or even me getting fired — would change that. My Alligator ‘a’ will remind me of that forever, because as setbacks and misfortune and heartache inevitably reveal themselves in my career and in my life, it sure isn’t something I want to forget.
Ethan Bauer was a writer and sports editor for the Alligator. Follow him on Twitter @ebaueri.