Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Words that change lives

Sometimes you know you've made a difference in someone's life. They tell you, or you can see for yourself. (I'm not thinking so much of family here as I am friends and more casual aquaintances, or teachers and students, or co-workers -- those kinds of relationships.)

And sometimes -- probably more often than not -- you don't know. You might hope you have, but you may never know. Or you simply don't realize the impact of your words.

Sometimes it's a positive thing, isn't it -- someone gives you a compliment at a moment when you really need to feel good about yourself or what you're doing. And sometimes it isn't: you're criticized for your faults or actions, perhaps unfairly, perhaps not, but it sticks with you, probably all your life, and rankles, or hurts, or pinches a bit.

My high school English teacher made a huge difference in my life. Mrs. Simmons encouraged my writing and handed me books that were not the sort I usually read (although I always was a voracious reader, which she knew), but books that would challenge my thinking, teach me critical analysis or a style of writing. She was not a teacher you loved, but she was good -- and I didn't appreciate how good until I was in college. When I got into a classroom to teach my own classes, I found myself using so many of her techniques to help my students learn to analyze what they read, to express themselves clearly and accurately.

And I told her so in a letter. She was deeply appreciative -- said she had never received such a nice letter from a former student, and was glad to know she'd made a difference. We corresponded for a year or so, off and on. But I got to say thank you.

I also remember an offhand comment from a high school acquaintance that has never left me. She was one of the cute, short, bouncy girls of the '60s; I was tall and not terribly comfortable in my body, and had to push myself out of self-consciousness. I was highly sensitive to criticism (still am more than I'd like to be, alas). There were several of us talking in the girls' locker room one day, and she turned to me and said, "You are so loud! Your voice carries too much. Everyone can hear you all over."

Of course that made me even more self-conscious and embarrassed, and I tried for years to stifle my laughter, my enthusiasm, and my voice level. Only after I'd done a fair bit of acting did I realize that a voice that carries is a huge asset in theatre, and I learned to control it much better. But it hurt for years, and even now, after -- ooo -- some 45 years, I remember how it stung. And I remember her name.

More than 10 years ago I was active in an Internet chat room -- before I'd ever even contemplated a move to California. There were amazing people there -- funny, very well-read, extremely good writers, imaginative. There were special friendships formed there, and several had met in RT -- real time. At least one couple had married. It was a magical year with that group, and I also got to meet several of them in RT.

I'll never forget an online conversation with a few members of that group while I was out here for the first time. I'd come for a 10-day training session and fell in love with the Bay Area. Nearly as soon as I arrived, I knew that I belonged in California, even though it was going to mean turning my life completely upside down, and I think I knew on some level that I was ripe for that change even before I got on the airplane.

One of those new friends told me as I was waxing on about how right it felt here, how I believed I needed to be here: "Then make it happen, sister. Make it happen."

For the next six months those words were my mantra, and I indeed made it happen by researching, by talking to anyone who could help me realize that goal, and by examining what I truly wanted from life and who I truly was becoming (rather than the person I'd been who often acted in accordance with other people's expectations of me). I left a marriage, I left friends, I left a job (although my company created a new one here for me), and I found my life.

But her words were the catalyst that made me believe that I could really do it.

We never know when a casual comment may make all the difference in another's life, change their perception of themselves, give them hope or courage, devastate them into failure.

Choose your words carefully. Say thank you to someone whose words have deeply and positively affected your life. And don't allow the negative stuff to control one more instant of your precious life.

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