My mother was a third grade teacher. There was a boy in her class one year who had been socially promoted through first and second grades without having learned to read. You can imagine the host of other problems this created for him academically and socially. My mother decided this would not stand and it was up to her to be the difference maker. I was in my early teens at the time and remember her pouring herself into this boy… after school, on the weekends, whenever he had time. She worried about him at night. She researched, planned and prayed for him. Unless there was a breakthrough, unless he learned to read, his future would have a scarcity of hope, his opportunities would be very limited and his life would be extremely hard.

The breakthrough finally came after long months and untold hours of hard work.

Fast forward.  Years later during June of 1988, my mother died after a five year battle with cancer. An hour or so after the funeral services were over, my brother and I were sitting in the living room of her former home and someone knocked on the front door. It was a handsome young man in his mid-to-late 30’s who spoke first, “I’m so sorry to have missed your mother’s funeral. I only heard of her death this morning and have been driving hard to get here. May I come in?” He continued, “Your mother taught me in the third grade and I’ll never forget her. She changed my life.  When I got to the third grade I could not read and no one seemed to care… except your mother. She worked me pretty hard and she never let me give up. Looking back, I know she believed in me when I didn’t have any reason to believe in myself. She taught me to read. You see, your mother made an investment in me – I know it cost her time and effort – and I never told her how her investment turned out. I’m sorry. At least you should know… I’m the president of a bank today. I’m married with two small children and hope and pray they will have teachers like your mother. Please know that I will never forget her.”

In addition to the gratitude I feel, there are several lessons here. Let’s focus on two. The  first is that my mother was dedicated to the proposition that she had to make a difference in the life of this eight year old boy. Without being able to read, the trajectory of his life would be set at a very low arc. His future was bleak at best. I’m not sure that any of her schooling and experience had directly prepared her for this exact situation: a seemingly bright boy who couldn’t read and had been socially promoted to the 3rd grade. So she had to figure out how to make progress; she had to figure out what made sense at that time and place. She could not let this situation stand.

Deciding to make a difference prompts the question, “What price am I willing to pay?”  It begs to know commitment. It insists on answers to “If not now, when? If not me, who?”

Secondly, she had to suspend judgement and not label. Labels are limiting. They cause us to not only “pigeon hole” someone but to dehumanize them; we see the thing we have labeled and not the person. I believe she, as Peter Block would say, replaced judgement with curiosity. It’s the shift from “He’s stupid” or “He’s lazy” to “I wonder…” The first two statements lock down your thinking, your imagination, and your creativity. The third opens a world of possibilities.

Much more is possible than people ordinarily think. It’s the gap between a social promotion and a bank presidency. The question is how do you make a difference.

In Other Words…

“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began
Now far ahead the Road has gone
And I must follow, if I can
Pursuing it with eager feet
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet
And whither then? I cannot say.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

A shoe factory send two marketing scouts to a region of Africa to study the prospects for expanding business. One sends back a telegram saying,
“Situation hopeless. No one wears shoes.”
The other writes back triumphantly,
“Glorious business opportunity. They have no shoes.”

“It was much later that I realized Dad’s secret. He gained respect by giving it. He talked and listened to the fourth-grade kids in Spring Valley who shined shoes the same way he talked and listened to a bishop or a college president. He was seriously interested in who you were and what you had to say.” – Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Respect

“A university is a reading and discussion club. If students knew how to use the library, they wouldn’t need the rest of the buildings. The faculty’s job, in great part, is to teach students how to use a library in a living way. All a student should really need is access to the library and a place to sleep.” – John Ciardi, Ciardi Himself

“The only purpose of education is to teach a student how to live his life – by developing his mind and equipping him to deal with reality. The training he needs is theoretical, i.e., conceptual. He has to be taught to think, to understand, to integrate, to prove. He has to be taught the essentials of the knowledge discovered in the past and he has to be equipped to acquire further knowledge by his own effort.” – Ayn Rand

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” – Anne Lamott

“In a completely rational society, teachers would be at the top of the pyramid, not near the bottom. In that society, the best of us would aspire to be teachers, and the rest of us would have to settle for something less. The job of passing civilization along from one generation to the next ought to be the highest honor anyone could have.” – Lee Iacocca, Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

In The Word…

Know also that wisdom is sweet to your soul; if you find it, there is a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off. – Proverbs 24:14

In Linked Words…

Sir Ken Robinson, Changing Paradigms