The Awesome Potential of the Simplest Words

“I love it when a plan comes together”

My sister and I said those words at least a thousand times when we were in high school.  It was what Hannibal said every week on The A-Team.  It never occurred to me that someone wrote those words, someone other than George Peppard.

Flash forward two decades and I’m a member of Writers Guild (the screenwriters union), and I produce an event featuring the best film and TV writers in the business,  The Writers Salon — ten writers in ten classrooms, sharing their wisdom.  One of our speakers is Stephen J. Cannell, creator of The A-Team.  He’s charming and impassioned, with a muscular physique better than men half his age, and he runs his room like a master class in television.  We’re blown away.

I still don’t put two and two together.

A few months later, I run into Stephen and we start talking about what an incredible experience the Salon had been for all of us, and he tells me what it means to him to pass on information to other people, to make a difference in their lives.  Then, casually, he says, “It’s funny, at least once a week I still hear someone say, ‘I love it when a plan comes together.’”

I turn into a complete babbling idiot.  “Oh my God, you wrote that!”

How had I not realized it before that moment? I can’t say that Stephen J. Cannell changed my life with that line of dialogue, but it was such a huge part of my teen years, that I felt inexplicably indebted to him, and I told him so.  He smiled and thanked me, and I thanked him back.

Maybe that one line of dialogue didn’t change my life, but others did.  When I was in junior high, on an episode of Gimme a Break, Nell got a visit from a childhood friend who had become quite successful.  While the daughters in the show are meeting her, Samantha asks, “Is that a Phi Beta Kappa pin?” and is beyond impressed.  I don’t know why that stuck with me, but it did.  I think I was 12 or 13 at the time, and had never heard of Phi Beta Kappa.  I always knew I was going to college (luckily, I was from a family where that was just always assumed), but the idea of doing well or earning academic honors was never broached.

A few years later, when Alex P. Keaton rattled off among his goals, “Being the youngest person ever inducted into Phi Beta Kappa,” I perked up again.  Still no idea what this Phi Beta Kappa thing was, but it clearly matters.  Two of the smartest characters on TV seemed to care about it a lot.

In my freshman orientation packet was a flyer describing the requirements of membership in Phi Beta Kappa.  It was on a paper shade called goldenrod, and if it weren’t for Mort Lachman, Sy Rosen and Gary David Goldberg (the creators of Gimme a Break and Family Ties), I’m sure I would’ve crumpled it up and thrown it away with the rest of the useless documents.  Instead I taped it to the wall above my desk, and I’m certain it’s the reason I was the first person in my family to get a graduate degree.  I didn’t care at all about grades, but I was going to do everything in my power to make Phi Beta Kappa, dammit.  So thank you to the various writers who wrote those lines of dialogue.  Your words changed at least one person’s life.

Since moving to Hollywood, I’ve had the privilege of meeting Joseph Stefano and spending time with Carl Gottleib, writers who made millions of us think twice before getting in the shower or swimming in the ocean.  How many lives have been saved because an episode of ER was about the exact problem someone wasn’t planning to get checked out?  I’ve always understood that putting words on paper had the power to change lives, but I never fully understood what that would be like until this week, when I am holding my breath, waiting and hoping and praying that something I wrote might make a difference in the world.

This week, an article I wrote for The Huffington Post got a lot of attention. More than I could have ever imagined, and it contained this, describing the youngest of four siblings who went to college instead of getting pregnant like her three older sisters:  “Where was her College Shower, to give her a laptop, a bookbag, sheets and towels, gift cards, cash and whatever else she might have needed to strike out on her own? Where was the whole family coming together to lionize her achievement, and set an example for younger ones of how you’re revered when you further your education?” 

And somehow, that struck a nerve.  Somehow, that planted a seed, and the idea of a College Shower took on a life of its own.  Since this article came out, I’ve heard from hundreds of people through email and Facebook and Twitter that they are now planning on throwing college showers, including women’s organizations that want to make it a regular event for the girls they mentor, some even asking my advice on how to do it.

I’m working on that part now, but in all the flurry, I had to stop and take a moment and think, my God, this could happen.  There actually could be a tradition of college showers started in this country, and what would that mean?  Is it possible that some little girl attending one, or seeing a story on the news, or (oh please please please) watching a reality show on TV about spectacular college showers could make that her goal?  Going to college, even if she’s from a community where no one goes to college and it is rarely celebrated?

There’s no way of knowing if this will be the outcome.  But it’s possible.  And that possibility is overwhelming to me.  That could be the girl who cures cancer, or lands on Mars, or is the first female president (although we’d better have one long before then!)  It’s both humbling and awesome, and I guess it’s my way of paying back every writer whose words have changed my life.  Thank you.

I love it when a plan comes together.

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