Little comment, big change


By Janice Lindsay, Contributing Writer

Janice Lindsay reflects on how three words spoken by her college professor changed her life.
Janice Lindsay

It’s thought-provoking, how a small event, even a small remark, can change a life’s trajectory. You move along confidently in one direction, then some slight comment creates a curve, and off you go to a better place you hadn’t considered, never looking back.

I ponder this now because high school and college graduations are coming up, and it was a college professor who unwittingly caused my change in direction, with three little words.

I entered the College of Education at Northeastern University in Boston intending to become a high school English teacher. Everything I liked best about school pointed me in that direction.

I chose NU because my parents couldn’t afford to send me to college. With Northeastern’s Co-Operative Plan of Education, which alternates classroom study with a paid job the university finds for you, I could pay for college myself as long as I lived at home in Newton.

Besides, I liked the idea of the university finding a paying job for me. I thought I could never find a college-supporting job on my own, being unsuited for any job I could think of. Most of my paid work had been of the babysitting variety.

The freshman year consisted of full-time classwork. Then came time for The Job. I wasn’t ready for student teaching. How would they find me a job?

Each student was assigned a co-op coordinator who matched available jobs with qualified students. My coordinator must have begged my professors to identify any hint of applicable ability.

Fortunately, she asked my English teacher, Professor Skiffington. He was tall, thin, angular, quiet, and wry, given to making 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 that changed my life forever. He told my coordinator, “She can write.”

A new co-op job had recently opened at a weekly newspaper in Brookline, just down the subway line from home. All it required was someone who could write and type.

The thought of that job interview terrified me. I’d never been in a newspaper office. I’d never seen that newspaper. But this was my big chance at A Job.

The editor spent almost no time interviewing me. Instead, he sat me at a desk with a typewriter. He handed me a list of facts about a house fire, scrambled so that 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, but sometimes I had a front-page story and a byline.

There’s an old expression that people “get printers’ ink in their veins.” It means that you fall in love with seeing your chosen words in print. I contracted a wicked case of printers’ ink vein from which I have 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 ever know how we might have unwittingly helped someone? 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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