I learned a lesson one day in high school that I’ll never forget. It was the last class of the day – Problems of Democracy (POD) with Mr. Rossi. He pointed to a paper on the wall and told me, “You should sign up for this. It’s the Jaycees annual speech scholarship competition. You can do it.”
I took one look at the list of names on the sheet and said, “No, I can’t.”
The classmates already signed up happened to be the valedictorian and four other students who ranked in the top 10% of the class. How could I compete with them?
I was an average student, making mostly B’s and following a commercial track, taking secretarial courses instead of subjects like chemistry.
That track was working for me. Back in “the day”, secretary’s had to know shorthand – symbols that stood for words. You had to be trained to read it and write it. Actually, I was pretty good at it. In fact, I earned the “Shorthand Award” for accuracy and speed my junior year.
But a simple family dinner in my senior year changed that course.
My mom had taken us out to eat at a pancake house in the mountains. I was sitting next to my brother, Bob, and he said, “Why don’t you go to college for communications?” I asked, “What’s communications?” He explained that I could do all kinds of things in this field – write for a newspaper or television, go to work for an ad agency, or go into television production.
That sounded good to me – maybe because my brother, who I looked up to all my life had suggested it. After all, he was the one I used to follow out the door every day as he walked to Kindergarten – as far as I could – to the end of the yard.
So after he suggested a career in communications, it became a path I wanted to follow. I applied to Carlow College in Pittsburgh and waited for that envelope to arrive. One day, a big, white envelope was sitting in the mailbox.
“Congratulations, you have been accepted,” it said. But there was more. “Because you have not taken the academic course of subjects, you will be accepted as a “special student status.” All that it meant was that I’d have to prove myself by taking three classes my first semester, instead of the normal four. If I could do that and succeed, I would be a traditional student, with all the rights and privileges and work that goes along with it. I was ecstatic and afraid, all at the same time.
Rewind back to Mr. Rossi. His encouragement to try out for the speech scholarship went on for days because every time he said, “You can do it”, I kept saying, “No, I can’t.” Then, by the end of the week, it occurred to me that if he believes in me, shouldn’t I believe in myself? So I added my signature to the sheet.
I had to write and deliver a ten minute speech on one line of the Jaycees’ Creed. I chose the last line “…and that service to humanity is the best work of life.”
Sitting at my kitchen table one evening as my mother washed the dishes, she suggested that I think of examples of service in action – like the rescue workers of the Johnstown flood that had just dominated the headlines. I was getting it. And so, on the note cards she got for me, I wrote it. I memorized it. And two weeks later, with everything I had, I delivered it to the judges. And I won.
Those words, “You can do it”, still echo in my mind. Mr. Rossi taught me more than POD, he taught me to believe in myself.
Because of this achievement, I went on to Carlow College with a degree of confidence I wouldn’t have otherwise had.
Coincidentally, my first job out of college was executive secretary to Dan Rooney, president of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a job that I enjoyed. But I had different goal. I wanted to start a career in public relations.
I had learned that I really could do whatever I set out to achieve. And so can you.