Making a difference -24 years later

The call came out of the blue. It wasn't even a two-way conversation - just a voice mail left last Friday for a Spanish teacher (my sister) at the suburban Minneapolis high school where she works. Yet woven through that brief message are enough lessons and rewards to warm the hearts of teachers and parents everywhere.

A woman identifying herself as Melissa M. began by saying that she wanted to thank the teacher for a favor she did for her in 1977. She explained that the teacher had caught her smoking in the bathroom after school and had called her parents to report the incident. Embarrassed and chastened, Melissa quit smoking that day.

Fast-forward 24 years. Melissa has been married for nearly 20 years, and she and her husband are the parents of three teenagers, ages 15, 13, and 12. In health classes at school, her children are learning about the dangers of tobacco.

During a family discussion on the subject, the trio asked their mother if she had ever smoked. "Yes," she says she replied, "I did for about three months, but I got caught. I was so humiliated, I never smoked again."

In her voice mail to the teacher, she added, "You're the one who stopped me. I appreciate the fact that you took the time to call my parents. I've talked to my kids and other people about you a lot."

What a testament to the power of a single caring act by a concerned teacher. And what an example of the power of parents' influence for good. The incident also illustrates the value of a heartfelt thank you, however long in coming.

Melissa's experience raises intriguing "what-if" questions:

What if the teacher hadn't called her parents?

What if her parents hadn't made an issue of their daughter's cigarette habit, and had instead shrugged helplessly and taken a "What are we supposed to do?" approach?

And what if Melissa had continued to smoke? Might her children now have a harder time resisting the habit?

A quarter century ago, when the Spanish teacher dialed Melissa's number, such a call was easier to make. Respect for teachers ran higher then. In addition, communities were still invisibly wired for caring. Networks of friends, neighbors, relatives, and teachers provided extra eyes and ears, looking out for children's well-being and helping to keep them on the straight and narrow.

Today, the teacher says, she probably wouldn't make that call. Explaining that she and other teachers often find a defensiveness among parents, she says, "Some parents don't like to be called when their kids have done something wrong. They don't want to believe it."

Schools' fear of parental backlash in some situations also produces timidity, she adds.

But the need for moral courage still runs strong. We are our brother's, and our children's, keepers. As Melissa's story shows, no one ever knows what guiding hand, what encouraging words, what gentle pat on the back, or even what minor rebuke will have a lasting effect, perhaps transforming a life in small or large ways.

Melissa's experience and her teacher's example suggest two more questions anyone can ask:

First, what could I take a few minutes to do or say that might make a difference in someone's life?

And second, who can I thank for the encouragement or direction they provided, however long ago, that has made a difference in my life?

The answers to both questions, multiplied by the hundreds and thousands, could have impressive power.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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