Simple kindnesses can change the world
Submitted by Fulton Breen
In the fall of 1974, I was beginning to realize that I’d have to make a decision about attending college or not, and if so, what college. The challenge of how to get accepted, and even more daunting, how to pay for it, hadn’t yet reached consciousness yet. I had taken the SAT during my junior year and if I recall, I barely broke 1,000, 1,100 tops, as my score. I needed to take it again but that takes money so I decided to stick with what I had and let my future alma mater be decided by fate. This seems reckless as I think of it now but there was no one to coach me about this stuff at the time. Also, going to college was not expected of me; it wasn’t discouraged by any means, it was simply a choice that was left up to me.
My four sisters and I enjoyed a good childhood. Our modest upbringing encouraged independence while structure was provided through family rules and strict weekly attendance at Mass. My father struggled with alcohol with my mother keeping us afloat working night shifts while attending school to earn her nursing degree. In retrospect, I consider the experiences and lessons learned during this period to be some of the most valuable and rewarding of my formative years. However, at the time, all I recall was the desire to “get away” and college seemed to provide the opportunity to do that.
Most of my friends were going to Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia and Davidson as I recall. Although I had many friends in high school, I remember wanting to start from scratch; go someplace different. Clemson entered my short list of possibilities when I inquired about a football pennant hanging in my cousin’s bedroom. He was a Georgia Tech graduate and explained that Clemson was a respected school located in South Carolina. For some reason I locked on to Clemson as my choice from that point on. I had never visited Clemson, didn’t know of anyone that had been there and had no idea of what they offered. Apparently, intuition was a powerful influence in my decision process as Clemson’s was the only application I sent.
I distinctly recall that there was an $80 application fee, which I borrowed, that in turn brought to the forefront the issue of “how am I going to pay for this if I get in?.” The going pay scale was roughly $3.00 an hour so sheer numbers of hours wasn’t going to be an easy solution to this problem. I worked three jobs that summer; golf course maintenance, Greenhouse/flower shop and as a janitor.
By mid-August, I had enough saved to pay for tuition, room and a 5-day meal plan; I figured I’d just “wing it” for food on the weekends. As I had no car, I couldn’t participate in the orientation programs offered during the summer, I just showed up the weekend before classes began the following Wednesday. I recall packing a box full of all my necessary items and taking Amtrak for $10.75 one way from Atlanta to Clemson. By the end of that first Saturday, I had checked in and began to relish the idea of being in college…
Monday morning brought the realization that I had to register for classes with all the other latecomers. I distinctly recall the flurry of activity to sign up for elective courses that were easy and possibly even fun. Advice about these electives carried all the validity of a stock recommendation on the subway but somehow I ended up with Entomology 101 under Dr. Tom Skelton.
On Wednesday, the first day of class, Ent 101 professor Tom Skelton captured our attention immediately with his confident and enthusiastic personality. In an effort to gauge our understanding of entomology and agriculture in general, Dr. Skelton asked questions of the class throughout his opening statements about the syllabus and expectations for the semester ahead. I recall answering one of the questions that had no other potential respondents: “Who knows what a ‘systemic pesticide’ is”? Having worked in summer jobs where pesticides were used, I knew the answer and basked in the delivery of my correct response. After class, Dr. Skelton called me over to speak with him. He proceeded to ask me my declared major, “Microbiology” I responded. “Why microbiology?” came his counter. “I don’t know”, my voice trailing off. As if it were decided already, he concluded “I want you to major in entomology”.
A dynamic middle-aged man paying attention to me at this stage in my life, when I needed it most, resulted in an immediate “ok” thereby inaugurating the first step in my new life.
By the end of my first semester, it became clear that my new mentor had much more in mind for me than to just guide me through basic entomology. With Dr. Skelton’s connections I was provided the means to pay for my second semester including a 7 day meal plan! In fact, I never paid another nickel for my remaining three years of school.
For reasons I can only begin to understand now as I approach my 59th birthday, this man changed my life forever with his kindness and attentiveness. Dr. Skelton’s simple act of charity radically changed the course of my life forever yet he did so with absolutely no possible benefit for himself in mind. My life is full of people doing these sorts of things as I’m sure is yours. Why do people do these beautiful things for others…others they may not even know and the impact they may never see?
I believe that we all are the beneficiaries of these kindnesses. If we think about it, the half-dozen or so pivotal people and events in all of our lives that have led to who we are today may likely have appeared insignificant at the time. The haphazard introduction to a friend of a friend who eventually becomes your spouse, the compliment from a stranger that awakens your desire to develop a latent talent, the smile offered to a stranger that changes their day. Who can say which of these acts will set the course of another’s day and maybe their life?
These kindnesses “cost” you nothing yet some percentage of them result in a critical milestone in someone’s life. Imagine the impact of making a habit of offering simple kindnesses, mentorship or affirmations to those we encounter each day knowing that some percentage, albeit small, will change their life for the good.
As leaders, we are in a position to have even greater impact on others’ lives through kindness. Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Make kindness a habit and know that you are changing the world, even if the change isn’t immediately seen.
Love, health and wisdom