Don’t Hold Back

You never know what a difference a kind and affirming word might make in someone’s life.
In Memoriam

Last week I attended the memorial service of a former teacher and friend, Paula Clark. She was my Spanish teacher for two years in high school, and she also was the coordinator for the PALS Program, where selected high school students mentored elementary students. She was an incredible woman, and one of the most universally beloved teachers at Brock High School in the 1990s. Perpetually kind and encouraging, with an unmistakable love and warmth for her students, she had a profound impact on my life.

While I was on my way to the visitation to pay my respects and well-wishes to her family, I recalled for the first time in many years an interaction I had with her one day in 1998. With the perspective of decades gone by I appreciated for the first time what a profound impact that interaction had on the course of my life. I share it here so that others might know what an incredible woman she was, and so that we might all follow her example.

A Skinny Teenage Goofball Gets a Major Course Correction in 60 Seconds

I was a high school junior at the time, tall and rail thin and filled with the insecurities so common to adolescence. We were in Mrs. Clark’s Spanish class but no Spanish was being spoken at the moment, and we students were casually discussing whatever inanities it was teenagers discussed back in the ancient 1900s. Mrs. Clark was sitting within earshot listening to our conversation, and I casually made an offhand comment about being a “skinny goofball” in the course of relaying some anecdote. While the comment was meant to be self-deprecatingly humorous, I really did believe that summation of myself at the time, deep down where it counted.

Mrs. Clark interrupted me while I was mid-sentence. “Chris! I need you to listen to me very carefully,” she said, warmly but quite firmly and seriously. “You call yourself a ‘skinny goofball,’ but that’s not how I see you at all. I see you as…” and proceeded to tell me how she saw me for about 60 seconds. I exclude her words of affirmation here because this is about honoring her and her special impact on my life, but suffice to say her words were very kind and charitable. More importantly, they were sincere and powerful.

When we are young we (hopefully) expect certain people to say nice things about us, like our mom or dad or grandmother. Because we expect it, it becomes easy to discount as rote and insincere. In those 60 seconds, I had an adult whom I respected tell me that I was more than I thought I was, and had potential to be more than I’d thought I could be. She could have sat out our teenage conversation, and certainly had no self-interested reasons to firmly correct my distorted view of myself, but she took the time to do so.

Looking back on it, I realize that moment and her simple but sincere words of affirmation began a process of changing my adolescent self-image, and beginning to see my potential to be something more than an unserious adolescent goofball. If Mrs. Clark thought I was someone with great attributes and potential, when she had no reason to go out of her way to lie to me about it, then maybe I did have something to offer. Her encouraging words identified traits I possessed that I had not previously recognized.

Because I trusted, respected, and believed her, I began to focus on those attributes, cultivating them and by doing so helped become the man I am today. It is astonishing as one ages to look back at these tiny seminal moments that have outsized impacts on our self-image and the courses of our lives, but I suspect they exist for all of us, good and bad, if we look carefully for them.

Never Miss an Opportunity
“No meritorious act of a subordinate should escape his attention or be left to pass without its reward, even if the reward is only a word of approval. Conversely, he should not be blind to a single fault in any subordinate…
-John Paul Jones

The above quote is from the great patriot and naval commander John Paul Jones, and is excerpted from his excellent memorandum to his subordinates titled “Standards of Virtue and Honor.” I served 20 years in the United States Army, with the vast majority of that time in US Army Special Forces. Special Forces has an excellent legacy and culture, but I will say if we, and military culture at large, have one major flaw it is this: We are excellent at not being “blind to a single fault,” but typically do a poor job of recognizing merit and granting the reward of a word of approval.

I think our society largely shares that same flaw. We tend to immediately call out that which is wrong, but too seldom identify and praise that which is right with the same urgency and passion. In honor of Paula Clark I intend to redouble my effort at ensuring that no meritorious act or positive attribute of those around me passes unnoticed. At worst it will get me looking for the positive and make it more difficult for me to dwell on the negative, which is my natural inclination.

So in closing, I ask that after reading of my remembrance of Paula Clark, you think of the people whose words of affirmation have helped you in your life, and if you still can, take the time to thank them for it. Perhaps more importantly, reflect on where you have opportunities to affirm those around you with kind words of recognition, whether it be for their actions or simply their admirable attributes. Don’t hold back. Don’t leave anything positive and encouraging unsaid. We should never miss an opportunity to offer kind and sincere words of affirmation for those around us. It costs us nothing but a bit of time, but positively impacting those around us is always time well spent.

5 thoughts on “Don’t Hold Back

  1. Great article, Chris! I’ve had two moments where small things said to me had a lasting impact.
    The first was in the late 80’s. I was working in a grocery store and had a boss who didn’t like me much and made that clear. One day, I don’t even remember the context, but he said,”Kathy, your a survivor. Whatever happens, you will always survive.” I do consider myself a survivor, always have and that moment was affirming. The second was about 15 years ago. I was very frustrated, trying to make all the teachers I happened to be working with happy with the outcome of a student study. He said, “Kathy, when you are trying to make all these people happy, the only one who will be unhappy is you.” I try to keep that in mind when I get in my “people pleasing” moments.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think Mrs, Clark listened for a need and then did whatever she could to meet it.
    At that moment, she could verbally encourage you, and she knew you needed it. She also gave a student a place to stay when it was needed. She also sewed a girl a prom dress that could not afford one.
    She was a bright light to so many students.

    Liked by 1 person

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