The Daily: Welcome to Odessa

We spent six months documenting one Texas high school’s reopening. This is what it looked like.

By Lauren Jackson

Hi everyone, it’s Friday! And it’s a particularly special Friday for a few members of the audio team: the crew behind our new four-part audio documentary, Odessa. We released the first episode today and have more on that below, plus the next installment in our series of producer profiles.

But first, we wanted to say how grateful we were that so many of you responded to our question in last week’s newsletter, letting us know which Daily episodes you can’t forget. Pam Costain from Minneapolis remembered our five-part series on European populism, Anne Jacko from Portland, Ore., said she “can’t stop thinking about” our episode with the P.S. 22 elementary school choir and Aviva Feldman from Chicago said our show from 2018 about the human toll of instant delivery still “lives rent free” in her mind.

This week, we want to know: Which former Daily guest would you like an update on?

Tell us here and we’ll consider featuring how they’re doing now in a future newsletter.

The school year begins in Odessa, Texas

Photographs by Tamir Kalifa

For the last six months, a team of Daily producers and editors have gone where few think they’ll go: back to high school.

Earlier in the pandemic, as schools around the country closed and the American education system plunged into an unmitigated — and seemingly unending — crisis, our team questioned how we could tell the stories of those affected. With travel limited, how could we meet the teachers on the front lines, or develop relationships with students cloistered in their bedrooms?

Then, a hook: Over the summer, Gov. Greg Abbott released a mandate that Texas’ schools would offer in-person schooling five days a week. While much of the country remained closed for the fall semester, we wanted to document what happened when Texas reopened.

So the team used Google hangouts, audio diaries, phone calls and FaceTime tours to capture what it sounded like when Odessa High School in West Texas welcomed students back to class. In the process, they met dozens of people, including a teacher struggling to provide instruction both in person and online, a superintendent trying to keep the district safe and a remote student trying to finish her senior year — while working a day job.

Today we released the first episode of Odessa, a four-part audio documentary series, that tells the story of a struggling school system, an oil bust and a marching band determined to keep playing through a pandemic. As more and more schools across the country begin to reopen, the series explores what happened in a school district that was among those that went first.

We sent a photographer to Odessa to capture scenes from the town and portraits of the people we interviewed. You can see those portraits here, but we wanted to share some additional photos with you below. Check them out, then listen to the first episode of Odessa if you missed it this morning.

Meet Rachelle Bonja: Audio fellow, polyglot, music composer

Compiled by Mahima Chablani and Desiree Ibekwe

Next up in our new producer profile series: Rachelle Bonja, our audio fellow extraordinaire. Rachelle is from Aleppo, Syria. Since joining our team last June — just a few months after graduating from college — she’s helped expand The Daily’s international coverage. She’s produced episodes on French secularism, the Taliban and the Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. We asked her some questions while she was working and quarantining in Lebanon:

How did you make your way to The Daily?

I joined the team last summer through The Times’s fellowship program. The program takes about 30 fellows, who work in different desks across the company, and I’m the current audio fellow.

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    Before applying for the job, I had always been a big fan of The Daily. It struck me as a piece of art that was so intentional and unique. One day, I saw a screenshot Michael Barbaro posted on Twitter of a crazy Pro Tools session from an episode of “1619.” I remember seeing that and just thinking, “Oh, my God, I would do anything to learn about the tricks and gears behind the show.” That’s what prompted me to apply to work here!

    What’s your favorite part of your job?

    One of my favorite things about my job is being able to be a part of our listeners’ morning rituals. I’ve heard people say they listen to The Daily with their coffee — it’s like their morning partner. How lovely is that?

    What type of stories do you like to produce on The Daily?

    Everybody on the team knows that I like to work on international stories. I love to learn about and report on cultures different from my own, because every time I absorb the smallest component of a different political system or society, I feel that my understanding of the world and humanity is completely turned around. One of the most rewarding stories I’ve worked on here was our episode on the uprisings in Belarus with producers Sydney Harper and Annie Brown. I wrote about that episode in a previous newsletter.

    Your original music has made it onto the show. Can you tell us about your musical background?

    I played piano growing up, started guitar a few years ago and have always been a singer. But playing instruments or singing with a band is very different than making jingles for The Daily. I’ve learned a lot from the composer on the team, Daniel Powell, about how to readapt those skills to make music that can complement an interview. You can hear some of my riffs in the episodes “Please, Give Me Back My Daughter” (29:16 until the end) and “The Pandemic Economy in 7 Numbers” (at 22:48).

    Do you have any reading or listening recommendations for our readers?

    An author I’m really getting into is Amélie Nothomb. Her writing style is so soothing. I read in French (it’s my first language), but some of her work is available in English. I’d recommend “Frappe-toi le coeur (Strike Your Heart).”

    I’d also recommend the music of Ibrahim Maalouf. After canceling my plans on New Year’s Eve due to Covid, I watched a recording of him performing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and in retrospect I was very happy that my plans got canceled. This concert is basically Maalouf’s interpretation of the discography of Um Kalthoum, one of the classics in Arabic music. I found his blend of genres so tasteful and touching.

    As for things to watch, I’d suggest Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water.” I know the movie has already gotten a lot of accolades and I’m late to it, but I watched it recently and really appreciated its visual and sonic aesthetics. It’s also scored by one of my favorite composers, Alexandre Desplats.

    Talk to Rachelle on Twitter: @rachellebonja

    On The Daily this week

    Monday: A look at the life, legacy and outsize political influence of the conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

    Tuesday: In the first of two parts on the New York nursing home crisis, we hear the story of a bereaved daughter, Lorry Sullivan.

    Wednesday: In Part 2: The political storm that is engulfing Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration.

    Thursday: Who is Merrick Garland, the attorney general nominee? And why is he suited to this moment?

    Friday: The first episode of Odessa.

    That’s it for The Daily newsletter. See you next week.

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