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Rebecca Rider column: Be flexible

Several years ago, I spent a couple months hopping back and forth between South Africa and Mozambique working with a humanitarian aid organization. During meetings and classes leading up to the trip, my team leader and teachers had one piece of advice to give about working in rural parts of developing nations: be flexible.

It was advice I learned to take the first day, when myself and others went to a local shopping center to pick up supplies and ended up waiting three hours for a ride. And for the next two months, it was advice I kept in mind whenever plans fell through or things went wrong — and things did go wrong.

We were late, or had events rained out. The electricity worked 25 percent of the time. The rope we used to pull water from a cistern (our only source of water) broke, and something had to be jerry-rigged with a branch, some nails and some twine. Someone dropped the water container three feet from the door and had to walk back to the cistern and fish out more water. We had canned food, but no can opener and a knife with no handle. Our truck broke down six hours from the nearest town, in the middle of the forest, and we had to push start it, feet digging deep into the mud. A taxi mix-up resulted in a five-mile walk back to base.

The point is: a lot can go wrong. Things rarely go as planned, but you learn to deal with it. You push the truck, jerry-rig the rope, bird watch while you wait, use the knife to open the cans or put one foot in front of the other and keep walking. And maybe, in the process, you run late or miss meetings. But you stay flexible, you keep an eye open for opportunities.

In the year I’ve been covering education, these are experiences and advice I find myself returning to, time and time again.

It’s hard to plan in the world of news. I wish I’d kept track of all the times I was on my way out the door, keys in hand, preparing to cover a meeting or go to an interview, when I was stopped by an editor and told that, unfortunately, something had come up. It’s been, at the least, a monthly occurrence.

Sometimes, that’s been more detrimental than beneficial. Yes, I got the larger story, but I let down the people I’d been planning to meet — sometimes more than once. I remember a few instances where I was forced to reschedule multiple times. It’s not fun for either party. They like to have their time taken seriously; I like to keep my word. But it’s the nature of the beast.

Stay flexible. Sometimes, I’ve put my foot down and declared I’ll be there, come hell or high water and walk out the door with fingers crossed that nothing catches fire. Sometimes, I’ve had to make up missed appointments in other ways.

Educators are, by nature, long-term planners. In 2016, someone called me in January asking if I could cover an event in April. In September, I penciled in an event for May, 2017. But it’s hard to plan ahead when you never know quite what will spring out at you.

As we walk into another year, I expect there will be more of the same. Though I hope the things that send me running from my office, camera in hand, will be stories about students doing incredible things, or the community stepping in suddenly, unexpectedly. I hope that the stories I cover when I have to drop long-scheduled appointments will be ones that my would-be-interviewee will be proud to read. But there’s not way to know for sure; and I’ll have to meet it, either way.

That’s the nature of life — everything is unexpected. There are few things you can count on. That you know are coming; that you know you’ll have to endure. For most people, that’s death and taxes. For education reporters, it’s school board meetings.

For everything else, you just have to be flexible.

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