Mr. Olsen had written a series of math problems across several chalkboards. The avalanche of white scribbles was overwhelming, but not impossible. “Anyone who gets them all correct,” he told his fifth grade class, “will get a sucker.”
Sheryl was one of five students who were up to the task. Unfortunately, the teacher said he only had four suckers, and was forced to ask if anyone would be willing to give up theirs. Sheryl said she would. Mr. Olsen thanked her, and proceeded with the rest of the school day.
Before the students were dismissed that afternoon, Mr. Olsen asked Sheryl to stay after school so he could talk to her. She’d never been asked stay after school, and she was terrified!
After all the other students exited the classroom. Mr. Olsen asked Sheryl to have a seat at his desk. He pulled open the bottom drawer and withdrew a whole, unopened bag of suckers and presented it to her. With a look of shock across her face, Mr. Olsen said, “Sheryl, what you did today was very generous and I am very proud of you. You did a good thing and I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate having you in my class. Thank you.”
This is a true story and it gives me chills. It’s just one of many that flooded my inbox after last week’s article, where I implored you to do something important:
Notice something good in someone, and tell them what you see.
Sheryl told me, “Forty-five years later and I still remember how that simple statement made me feel. It is a memory that does not fade. It is a memory of feeling ‘seen.’ Many of us were bullied as children and our families did not provide the love and support that children require. This ONE person ‘seeing’ me made all the difference. It gave me confidence and pride that I had never felt before. It became a seedling of hope.”
I wish I could show you all of the emails I received, each one testifying to the importance of this one, simple action. Here’s a sampling:
“In middle school, at recess, my principle who was doing playground duty, saw I was trying to hang out with the wrong crowd just to belong. She basically said stay away from those kids. I felt she valued me and cared what happened to me.”
“My 5th grade teacher was so kind and caring. She had us do a lot of projects and she encouraged me to be creative. I’m 52 and she’s the teacher who I can still remember how good I felt in her classroom.”
“I had a mentor in my graduate program who told me I was “too bright not to get my PhD.” That one comment changed my life.”
“One day as I was leaving class, my 7th grade language arts teacher said how she wished to be like me when she grew up. She explained that I had such surety and confidence in who I was and I didn’t let the desire to fit in and be popular (a huge thing for most middle schoolers) change the way I behaved. I stayed true to myself. That message has stuck with me and helped me hold onto my convictions when it would have been easier to just let them go and do what everyone else was doing.”
Some folks admitted they had a hard time coming up with more than a few names. How sad is that, when you think of all of the adults that a person encounters in just the first eighteen years of life? What a missed opportunity for all those potential influencers! I was delighted to hear one reader, a teacher herself, say that she makes a point to tell one student a day something she sees in them.
Question: How many third grade teachers imagine their students as 62-year-olds? If you are, you should, because if you do your job well, you’ll still be an important part of the person’s story when their own grandkids are starting first grade. I heard from a 62-year-old woman who still holds tightly to the inspired spark of encouragement given to her by a third grade teacher, using it as a life preserver keeping her afloat in a sea of self-doubt and uncertainty, all these years later.
Which brings up another important point that surfaced. Maybe there really is only one person who ever saw something amazing in you and told you about it. That doesn’t mean it’s not true. You don’t need a quorum for it to count. It’s more likely that dozens of people have seen the same thing in you but never actually told you. Maybe they were busy. Maybe they never realized how important it was. Maybe they thought you already knew. As I said previously, we assume people are able to see their own strengths. But we often don’t, because our strengths come naturally to us, so we assume they come easy to everyone, and discount them as anything special.
And don’t underestimate the power of specificity. Many people recalled very specific things that were said to them, down to the exact words. I’ve been fortunate to have many cheerleaders in my life, but the ones that stand out are the ones who praised something specific about me, like my leadership skills or creative writing ability.
I think about something Kim and I have done with our kids. We call Ginny “Little Miss Thoughtful,” because she seems to always search for creative ways to help someone. Ben is our “Sunshine Boy,” bringing smiles and positivity to others. Lucy is the “Peacemaker,” thanks to ability to skillfully negotiate peace treaties between her siblings.
These are nicknames we’ve given our kids, based on the traits we’ve identified in their personality and have seen them exhibit repeatedly in their young lives. But they’ve also become aspirational, as they work to live up to them. It’s a virtuous circle.
Compare that to the countless children – and the adults they’ve become – who have been repeatedly told that they are stupid, useless, or troublemakers, and won’t amount to anything.
We tend to live up to (or down to) the expectations others have for us.
On that point, one last email to share:
“Mr. John Sipe taught choir, Music Appreciation, Music Theory, and directed the spring musicals at my high school. This man had the ability to see each and every one of his students, value and respect them, find their hidden talents, and give them the confidence to move forward in the world. Beyond music, he taught us all life lessons in learning from and respecting others. By seeing each of us, he saved us.”
He saved us.
If you want to make a difference in the world; if you want to leave a legacy, here’s how: notice something good in someone, and tell them what you see.