To celebrate teachers at the beginning of a new school year—and before they’ve become glazed over and can no longer appreciate my gratitude, articulate a coherent thought, or participate in a compassionate action because their students have shoved those abilities right out of them—I’d like to offer some encouragement that their work is not in vain. Teachers really do make a huge impression, as I can attest when one teacher’s words to me changed the course of my life. . . .
During my junior year in college, Dr. George Rable, my advanced American Civilization professor, assigned a 20-page research paper as a course project. Throughout the semester, he made the students bring in our work and pass it to another student, who then read it and made comments. With each paper I received, I pulled out a red pen and peppered the paper with all sorts of observations.
This is passive.
What does this sentence mean?
Orientate is not a word.
You need to flesh out this argument. “Prove” it to me.
This sentence is choppy; how about this wording instead?
Those were all the types of things I’d seen on my own papers that my professor had evaluated. Basically I imitated what I’d seen, but didn’t think much more about it.
At the end of the semester, Dr. Rable called me into his office to discuss my next year’s classes, as he was also my advisor.
“Have you thought about what you’re going to do after you graduate?” he asked me.
I smiled. “I’m going to make use of my American studies degree and become a great American actress on Broadway.”
He laughed. He had been a consistent attendee at all my plays, so he already knew my draw to the stage. He also knew that while I liked history, I was not inclined to continue on the academic path to earn a master’s degree, and that I really didn’t want to become a teacher or a museum curator (nothing against either of those virtuous career choices). “Well, you know,” he said, “if the acting thing doesn’t work out, I’d encourage you to become an editor.”
Huh? His statement threw me. An editor? I didn’t know a thing about editors. I had no idea what they did. Or why. The only thing I could vaguely recall was that Jackie Kennedy Onassis was an editor for Doubleday. And why I even knew that was beyond me.
Dr. Rable went on to explain that what I’d thought was just mimicking his work on my classmates’ research papers had actually been editing and that I had a good gut for it. In fact, my editorial skills were what landed me with an “A” in the class.
I shrugged, thanked him, and politely filed his comment way back to the nether regions of my brain. I wouldn’t need a back-up job. He’d seen me act! I was going to take Broadway by storm. Surely he knew that. And anyway, an editor? Seriously? How boring would that be? You’re at a desk, behind a computer all day. You receive no accolades, no applause, no credit. You don’t get opening night flowers. And the audience doesn’t even know you exist.
Thanks, but no thanks.
And so when I graduated, I pursued professional acting. I loved it. I got to travel, meet new people, kiss hottie actors, and take on different personalities that were completely unlike my own. I performed in everything from children’s theatre to outdoor dramas to musicals to Shakespeare and everything in between. There was only one problem: after five years working professionally, I didn’t make much money and I needed a new car. (Okay, that was really two problems.)
My little red Chevette, which I’d had since I was a sophomore in high school, was a rusted-out, 11-year-old, tin can that resembled a Flintstone mobile (I could see the road rushing by in patches just beneath my feet while I drove). It desperately needed a proper junkyard funeral. I required new—or at least, new to me—transportation. But I didn’t have the funds and hated to go to my parents to ask for help. I was 27 years old, after all.
And as much as the theater life fit my late-night-owl personality, the truth was that in addition to never having enough cash, I had also grown tired of the instability, the constant auditions, the never-ending diets, and the near-neuroses of many of my fellow actors. It was time for a change. I needed to, gasp, look for other employment. But what?
I scanned the help-wanted ads. Nothing. I tried temp agencies and networking. But I didn’t want just a job. If I was going to quit pursuing a full-time acting career, my new employment had to be something I’d love just as much. Something that wouldn’t make me miss the bright lights of the stage.
One day several months into my search, a friend mentioned that I should check the job board at our church. I didn’t even know it had a job board!
“Good idea. Thanks!” I told her.
The following Sunday I headed to a church hallway on the other side of the building that I’d never frequented. There I stood before a large, cork bulletin board covered with photocopied postings and announcements.
I glanced at each listing.
Janitor. Nope, hated cleaning.
Short-order cook. Ha. I could barely make mac and cheese from a box.
Paralegal. Nah-uh. Training needed.
I sighed heavily, certain that this too had been a bust. But just as I began to turn away, my eyes grazed over a short listing off to the side. It announced an opening for an editorial coordinator at a small, but national magazine called Leadership. Immediately I recognized the magazine title—my dad had subscribed to it for years. At first I sloughed it off. The job was out in the suburbs—too far for me to commute every day.
And then the weirdest thing happened. Into my brain rushed words that I hadn’t thought of since that spring afternoon five years before: If the acting thing doesn’t work out, become an editor.
I stepped closer to the posting and scrutinized the job’s details. Lots of clerical skills, but also proofreading, interacting with authors, receiving free subscriptions and books, writing opportunities, and the possibility to advance into a more active editorial role.
What would it hurt? I thought and jotted down the contact information.
It’s now been more than twenty years since I took that job (did I mention I went to college when I was eight?). It was the best job—and life—change I could have made. All thanks to one professor who saw skills in me that I didn’t even know I had or how to name them. His words pointed me in the right direction. My simple but belated yes to his encouragement and to that job opening changed my life for the better—not to mention I could afford a new car.
I may no longer receive a standing ovation for my work or hear the instant feedback from a live audience or have my name in lights, but I’ve discovered that’s okay. I still entertain and educate people. I still rub shoulders with celebrities and travel all over the world. I’ve edited magazines and books and read amazing stories that have made me a better person. I sharpen authors’ skills and hopefully make readers’ lives a little happier, stronger, and more empowered.
And I have learned the power of words—both spoken and written. Speaking into another’s life, as Dr. Rable did into mine and how I try to continue that gift, even in my small editorial way, allows me to encourage and challenge the reader to think differently, to take a risk, or to embrace who that individual is. And when I receive an email from someone who read a piece that I sculpted until it was just right and I learn that it saved her marriage or parenting or health or faith in some way, I’m overwhelmed at my blessings. And I’m so grateful that I heard and acted on that professor’s simple, seemingly insignificant words from many years before.
So thank you, Dr. Rable, and thank you, teachers, for the good words you speak into your students’ lives. Even when you think what you say falls on shallow, dry ground, somewhere, somehow in the future, those words can take root and grow to change a life for the better.