Maria Luisa Cesar on Ira Glass and Lessons from a Thai Fortune Cookie

Noodle Expert Maria Luisa Cesar talks about Ira Glass' astounding ability to craft stories and the lessons about strength she found inside of a Thai fortune cookie.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

I would choose Ira Glass, the host and producer of This American Life. Glass has a nose for compelling and smart storytelling. He often cuts through complex characters in ways that reveals the heart of a story and the pulse of what it means to be human. As a journalist who is interested in becoming a better storyteller, I think he would be a great teacher. I think part of the reason that I'm drawn to education reporting is because it can often be complex and difficult to break down. But at its core is a very human story and oftentimes a very fascinating one, whether you're talking about standardized tests or school bonds.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

I've been fortunate to receive a lot of great advice through the years from family members, friends, colleagues, and even fortune cookies. Growing up, my dad told me, "always use your common sense," and that came in handy. I think we all have a gut reaction to things, a sense of what we think is right and wrong, and it's been helpful over the years to keep things simple and go back to that teaching.

But one of the best pieces of advice that I received came down to me when I was eating Thai food one night. That time, my fortune cookie read: "If strength were all, tiger would not fear scorpion." It made me laugh, and the idea got stuck in my head for days. It's true, though. We all have our strengths. Part of what's made me a strong reporter is my kindness, my ability to empathize with people — the "soft" things that people don't think of as strengths. That softness has helped people feel comfortable trusting me with their stories.

Where would you send a student who hasn’t traveled before?

I think it depends on the student — where does she come from? What does she not know? What has she not experienced? What would change her and encourage her to have a greater sense of compassion and understanding for others? What would open her heart and mind?

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

I am terrible at math — specifically geometry and calculus. I was an ace student in every other subject area, from grade school through college. But being good at something naturally doesn't really teach you anything. In fact, it can kind of teach you to be lazy or a procrastinator. Being bad at math taught me to work hard, to cultivate struggle and failure, and to move on. Failure teaches us how to get up, how to keep going. It teaches us what we're made of.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I went into journalism because I love writing, I love talking to people, and I have an endless sense of curiosity about everything! When I worked as a newspaper reporter, I realized pretty quickly that the job often entailed a lot of fighting — fighting to get people to talk to you, fighting to get people to call you back, fighting to get people on the record, fighting with people who were trying to slink away from basic questions about their seedy actions, fighting for public records. People think education coverage is easy. That couldn't be farther from the truth — education policy is complex and forever changing and you're often reporting on children, a sensitive and vulnerable population.

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