Little things that change lives

It was January 1968, and I’d just taken my usual seat in the school auditorium. In 15 or 20 minutes the hall monitor would call Bus #75 and I’d be on my way home.

A familiar face – my civics and homeroom teacher – popped through a side door and pointed two fingers of his right hand, one at me and one at my buddy Mike.

“You two, come with me.” Mr. Harris said. He wasn’t the kind of guy you questioned, and certainly not one you ever defied. We followed.

“Where we going, Mr. Harris?” I asked.

“You’re trying out for the spring musical,” he said.”

And thus I was conscripted into high school theatre, a hitch that lasted 4 years. I had no talent to speak of, but I was a male with a second-tenor voice that blended well with others. From ’68 to ’71, I was a chorus-line guy, playing a gambler in “Guys and Dolls,” a farmer in “Oklahoma!” and a factory worker in the “Pajama Game.” I never spoke a line on stage and not one of my characters ever had a name.

But this theatre experience changed my life. Completely. I gained confidence and stage presence, made new friends and even met a few cute girls along the way. (Heh. One took a quite a shine to me at a cast party, but I don’t kiss and tell.) Point is, I grew up on a theater stage at Indiana High School – not as most friends might think – in the woods killing God’s creatures with assorted firearms.

I’ll never forget Mr. Harris, and I’m pleased I had a chance to tell him this story 30 years later. He told me he was just trying to fill the cast for the play, and that wasn’t easy in my town where 9th grade boys viewed theatre as kind of sissified. But with one of those two fingers he pointed that day, Mr. Harris gave my life a radical new direction.

A year later, an English teacher named Mrs. Landon did something similar when she suggested I sign up for the high school newspaper staff. It was 2-year commitment, and to be honest, I didn’t have much interest in journalism back then. But it sounded like a good idea at the time, and there were even more cute girls involved. It was another small gesture by a teacher who altered my life’s direction and, in the process, helped turn me into a half-assed writer. (More on my high school newspaper adventure here.)

My performance on the newspaper staff was undistinguished. Hell, I covered sports, which is more like cheerleading than journalism anyway. Yet I managed to write two editorials that got my advisor dragged into the principal’s office, which cemented my reputation as a troublemaker for the ages. Disrupting the status quo became part of my raison d’etre and it remains so to this day.

My experience at the High Arrow convinced me to take a gamble on journalism school. That led to a career in PR and eventually, some 20 years later, to the college classroom where I became half-assed writing coach and a provocateur feared at every level of administration :-)

It all happened because of teachers who took one minute to steer me in a new direction. It wasn’t so much a conscious effort but something each of them did routinely. So the next time a kid asks you for an informational interview, take the time. When asked to review a resume or portfolio, do it. Invited to attend a career night at a local college or high school?  Go. What does it cost you?

Richard_M._Nixon,_ca._1935_-_1982_-_NARA_-_530679.tifI’m leaving out one person whose small gesture also changed my life immeasurably in 1973, and that was President Richard Nixon. In late January, Nixon decided NOT to call up any draftees from men born in 1953. My Selective Service number (57) had pretty much assured me a spot in the infantry bound for Southeast Asia, and I had already passed my military physical at the Federal Building in Pittsburgh. So despite having voted for Nixon’s opponent in 1972, I owe a tip of the hat to Tricky Dick, not for what he did but what he did NOT do to my draft class in 1973.

A few months later, I declared public relations as my major and the following fall I met another cute girl who I’ve been hanging around with ever since.

It’s the little things we do, man. Don’t think for a minute they aren’t important.

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