Starkville High School journalism teacher R.J. Morgan had a plan to surprise his student Leah Gibson, and the results are on Youtube.
Gibson is a co-anchor on SHS’s “My Morning Jacket,” a TV news program broadcast within SHS and posted online. For the Wednesday edition, Morgan said he handed co-anchor Barnes Locke a sheet of paper with a special announcement.
The Journalism Education Association named Gibson the Mississippi Journalist of the Year Tuesday, qualifying Gibson to compete at JEA’s national level and bringing her one step closer to realizing her dream of becoming a TV show host.
Morgan said Gibson’s reaction was a surprise.
“(Locke) reads it aloud, and he and Leah are on camera at the same time,” Morgan said. “Leah looks at him, looks at the paper, says ‘Thank you, Barnes,’ and then just looks right back at the camera and says, ‘There will be a National Honor Society meeting tomorrow,’ and went right into the next announcement. That sums up Leah Gibson to me.”
Morgan said he had hoped for a bigger reaction to catch live on-air. Gibson said she was excited to receive the honor — she just didn’t show it at first.
“I was in shock,” Gibson said. “Normally, I’m not a person that will jump around and yell and scream when something good happens to me.”
While not every state has a JEA chapter, Morgan said the award positioned Gibson as one of the top 50 high school journalists in America and would benefit her future career. He said Gibson was the second SHS student in a row to win at the state level, following 2012 graduate Bailey Brocato’s win last year.
“The things that are similar between Leah and Bailey are ... they are creative and they are hardworking,” Morgan said. “There’s natural talent there, but on top of that, they are relentless in their work ethic and just really trying to soak up everything this experience can give them before they’re pushed out into the next level. You don’t see that in a lot of kids.”
Morgan said Gibson was part of SHS’s newspaper and yearbook staff last year as a junior, and she quickly rose to fill multiple journalistic roles this year. Gibson said she wanted to become a lawyer when she first came to SHS, but she developed a passion for broadcast journalism when she became a sophomore.
“I thought I could more directly contribute to society by getting the word out about things,” Gibson said. “The positive impact people have by being on television, I wanted to be a part of that. After getting my feet wet with the writing part of journalism, I decided to get into broadcasting because that’s what I eventually want to do.”
Gibson said her dream was to have her own television show or to be a reporter on entertainment news TV. She enjoyed the excitement of the entertainment industry, she said, and she has multiple role models on TV.
“I grew up watching Oprah, so Oprah has definitely been a role model for me,” Gibson said. “I do also look up to Tyra Banks, because she does a little of everything. She has her own production company. She does modeling. She has her own foundation for young girls.”
Gibson said she loved everything about “My Morning Jacket,” especially the opportunity to tell others’ stories in ways that grab attention and show story subjects’ true identities. She also enjoyed showing personality and energy to the student body, she said, and one of her favorite features discussed the GoPlay Initiative and the Friendship Playground its members installed at Sudduth Elementary School for children with special needs.
“I saw so many things and got to talk to so many people,” Gibson said. “After talking to the special needs teachers, the principal of Sudduth and all the parents, I saw how big this playground actually was, and I saw how (important) it was going to be for our community. I was excited to be a part of that.”
Gibson plans to study journalism at the University of Mississippi, and she said was grateful for the background Morgan gave her.
“I feel like Mr. Morgan has always stressed creativity and thinking outside the box,” Gibson said.
Morgan said Gibson was also more than just a journalist.
“The sheer volume of things this girl is involved in, runs, coordinates or manages go far beyond the morning newscast,” Morgan said. “She is president of I-can’t-even-count-how-many clubs, she manages clothing drives, she has her own website and she’s still where I need her, when I need her, without me even having to ask her.”