It’s thought-provoking, how a small event, even a small remark, can change your life trajectory. You’re moving along confidently in one direction, then some slight comment creates a curve, and off you go in a better direction, never looking back.
I consider this subject now because I’ve just celebrated a Big 0 anniversary of my college graduation. (I’m not prepared to reveal which Big 0). A college professor unwittingly caused my change in direction.
I entered Northeastern University in Boston convinced that I was going to be a high school English teacher. Everything I liked best about school pointed me in that direction.
I chose Northeastern because my parents couldn’t afford college. But NU’s Co-operative Plan of Education, which alternates classroom study with a paid job the university finds for you, would enable me to pay for college while living at home in Newton. Besides, that “paid job the university finds for you” appealed to me. I knew I would never find a college-supporting job on my own, being unsuited for any job I could think of, most of my paid work having been in the realm of babysitting.
The freshman year consisted of full-time classwork. Then came time for The Job. I wasn’t ready for student teaching. What to do with me?
Each student was assigned a “co-op” coordinator who matched available jobs with qualified students. My coordinator must have asked around, begging professors to identify any hint of applicable ability.
Fortunately she asked Professor Skiffington, my freshman English teacher. He was tall, thin, angular, quiet and wry, and given to muttering comments like “every silver lining has a cloud” and “don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.”
He spoke three little words about me that changed things forever. He told my coordinator, “She can write.”
At that very moment, a new co-op job had opened at a weekly newspaper in Brookline, just down the T line from home. All it required was someone who could write and type.
Thought of that interview terrified me. I’d never been in a newspaper office. I hardly even read newspapers. But this was my big chance at A Job.
The editor didn’t spend much time interviewing me. Instead, he sat me at a desk. He handed me a list of facts about a house fire, scrambled so there was no narrative. He told me to unscramble the facts and write the story. Yikes. That’s something I didn’t learn in education school.
But I muddled through and got the job. Before long, I was writing story after story. Mostly I wrote wedding and engagement announcements, and obituaries. Sometimes I wrote front-page stories and got a byline.
There’s an old expression that people “get printers’ ink in their veins”: you fall in love with seeing your chosen words in print. I contracted a wicked case of printers’-ink-vein from which I never recovered.
That was the end of my teaching career. I changed majors. And here I am, writing words that will appear in ink on paper and maybe somebody will read them.
All because Prof. Skiffington said, probably in his usual offhanded manner, “She can write.” He never knew what he had done for me.
All of this makes me ponder. Did I ever say anything, or write anything, that changed someone’s trajectory for the better? Does any one of us know how we might have affected the lives of other people? Are we all George Baileys, of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but without an angel to show us what the world would have been like without us?
I wish I had thanked Professor Skiffington.
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