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On the Tube: PBS show puts the camera in the hands of remarkable, everyday people

Friday, April 21, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PBS gets tagged as the Public Boredom System and sometimes deserves the unflattering nickname. But not "Right Here, Right Now," a PBS program airing tomorrow at midnight on WQED.

This is the third pilot episode of a proposed series that puts a video camera in the hands of an everyday person and allows that person to tell his or her story.

Inspiring in a way that a newsmagazine could only hope to be, "Right Here, Right Now" brings a bit of MTV's "Real World" vibe to PBS (minus the fancy apartment and party-hearty, self-conscious twentysomethings). It's an intimate look at the life of a person in their real world rather than a contrived situation.

East Liberty's Jonelle Thornton was one of four people given video cameras to record their lives. Thornton took the camera with her to the Successful Stuttering Management Program in Spokane, Wash., in the summer of 1997.

Viewers meet Thornton 20 minutes into this edition of "Right Here, Right Now" after the story of a pre-med student. Thornton is immediately likable, but it's also clear she struggles with her stuttering. She's a doctoral candidate in the school psychology program at the University of Pittsburgh and she wants to improve her speaking so she can be ready to defend her dissertation.

The progress she makes over the course of the three-week program -- boiled down to 40 minutes for TV -- is remarkable.

Now, almost three years later, Thornton is a practicing school psychologist who works at six Pittsburgh public schools, including Westinghouse High and Greenfield Elementary. She said when she made the video she didn't think much about people seeing it.

"Now you start to think, 'I said all those things on tape?' " Thornton said. "You just get in the habit of saying whatever you think. Now is when you're thinking that's kind of exposing."

Thornton, 41, said practice is key to keeping her stuttering at bay. Because she's improved so much since she participated in the three-week stuttering management program, Thornton thinks people who have only gotten to know her recently will be astonished by what they see on "Right Here, Right Now."

"I think it does have it on the tape where my head used to bob up and down and the eyes shutting. Now when I have a hard time it's more like I'm slowing it out, it's not like my head's going up and down," Thornton said. "And it's so honest also. I think it's going to be like, 'Wow, you really did this.' I told the world everything. It's pretty open."

Thornton said she doesn't have as many difficulties when talking to students, but speaking to their parents can be a challenge.

"That's harder because I'm the one who has to say all the bad stuff," she said. "I'm the one who has to say your student is this. You get parents who are very upset. That's the only time I have to work really hard [at my speech]."

Thornton's story is an uplifting tale of perseverance. That she chose to video tape her progress shows courage and a drive to succeed. Forget about the manufactured, fictional heroes of the tube; Thornton is one of the bravest real people to grace television in a long time.

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