I first published this essay ten years ago on my very first website, and have included it in a couple of my books. A decade seemed to be about right for bringing it out again, because the basic notion–that kindness is never wasted and encouragement can change a life–never go out of style.
She looked familiar, but somehow shorter. For an embarrassing instant, I couldn’t remember her name. But she was grabbing me by both elbows and smiling and anybody could tell she was REALLY happy to see me!
I was standing in the middle of Miss Katie’s Diner, a retro-fifties restaurant near Marquette University with a whole lot of steel and chrome, waitresses in bobby sox, and cheeseburgers to die for. I’d just finished lunch during a break from an annual criminal law conference that a few of the guys from work and I go to every December to find out just how much we don’t know about our jobs. Our little foursome stood up and shrugged into our coats, heading for the door, looking a lot like a casual, weekend version of the intro to “Law & Order.” I turned and then a gal I just knew that I knew from somewhere was right in front of me, brimming with good news.
“It’s me, Cheryl,” she said, and it suddenly all came back. She looked shorter because this time I was in boots with three inch stacked heels instead of sneakers. “I just had to tell you, I’m graduating from Marquette this weekend with a double major, and it’s all because of you!”
Huh what?!! We swapped essentials in a hurry, because I had to get back to the conference and my boss was driving and while he’s a terrific guy, he’s never been known for his patience. But…she wasn’t kidding.
We’d been soccer moms many years before, with kids in preschool and grade school together, and then had run into each other by chance a few years earlier while I was running an errand at law school. She was working at the university. We hadn’t seen each other in years, and as we walked and talked one day on campus and caught up on what our kids were doing, she told me she was tied up in knots about whether she should start taking classes toward a college degree as long as she could get free tuition through her job at the university. She could think of a million reasons that it would be too hard, too inconvenient for everybody else in the family, too complicated. And, of course, she was “too old.” I—keeping in mind that one of the ways that I juggled law school with four kids at home was to remember that I could always buy clean socks and underwear at Wal-Mart—urged her to go for it. But the argument that clinched the deal, apparently, was something my long-departed grandmother had told my Aunt Patsy years ago when Aunt Patsy was agonizing over whether to study accounting and go for a C.P.A.
Grandma was a poorly educated but quick witted and tart-tongued Irish immigrant with a very practical bent. “You’re going to be fifty years old whether you have that accounting degree or not. So why don’t you turn fifty with it?” My aunt took that encouraging ass-kicking advice, got her C.P.A., and rapidly made life hell for tax cheats, working for the I.R.S. I will always remember the story. And so, apparently, will Cheryl.
We laughed and hugged each other at the diner, and then I left. My head was spinning for a long time, and it had nothing to do with trying to fold my five-foot-ten-in-heels frame into the back of the Jeep. It had everything to do with the power of a kind word and a little encouragement, and what had brought me this far.
I sometimes think that we’re all just in the middle of a giant three-dimensional pinball machine, thrown from one trajectory to another by things entirely unpredictable. But one thing that remains constant is the remarkable power of believing in someone, and telling them about it. You just never know where that’s going to end up.
For me, serendipity threw me off the full-time mommy track and on the path to law school at a tourist bar in Florida. I was on vacation with my two year old son and some relatives on Sanibel Island, and had arranged to have lunch with a guy I hadn’t seen in seventeen years but knew from when I was a college sophomore. We reconnected because of a reunion newsletter. He was working in Florida, and so one day he drove across the state via “Alligator Alley” and we caught up. Umpteen years earlier, he’d been a really bright, challenging, dissatisfied and angry young man, and dropped out (or been kicked out, I was never quite sure) of college. I had thought his potential was limitless, and before he left I bought him a poster to take with him. It said “If you set your sights among the heavens, even if you fail, you will fall among the stars.”
Seventeen years later, he had long since pulled his act together, gone back to school, become a highly accomplished federal attorney. We covered a lot of ground over chicken sandwiches and fries and diet Cokes. I jerked his chain and told him I thought he’d be a terrific writer. He jerked mine and told me he thought I’d be a really good lawyer. I was happily writing a novel, and didn’t think I had the brain power to possibly consider such a leap. He wasn’t buying it. He never had. “What, you think you’re too old to change?” he shot back.
I went back home, mulled the challenge, took the LSAT to see if my brain still worked, got accepted to law school and started making the place my own. In the early days, if I hit a questionable patch, I reminded myself that John believed I could do this, shut my eyes, and forged ahead and did it. Eventually I came to believe more in myself, and didn’t need his faith to fall back on. But I was glad to have had it when I started.
So I often tell my kids that kindness is never wasted. That if you have something good to say about someone, say it sooner rather than later because you just never know what shores that encouragement will carry them to.
Just ask John. Or Cheryl. Or Aunt Patsy. Or me.