Tongue-tied before my hero

Mr. Carter paused, and waited for me to reply.

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    President Jimmy Carter
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I recently received an e-mail from my mother concerning an interview she'd heard with Jimmy Carter.

"I'm sure you can catch it online," she wrote, then added, "Remember when you met Jimmy Carter?"

Leave it to a mother to start rattling skeletons in her daughter's closet. Although there are plenty to rattle, my face-to-face meeting with Mr. Carter has always been a particularly embarrassing experience to recall.

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Fifteen years ago, I was staying near the campus of Emory University in Atlanta, attending a three-month orientation program for overseas work. Our small group of participants was fairly representative of the global village: Some were first-time visitors to America. Others were residents or US citizens. But we all knew about Carter. I took great pride in my former US president, a man whom I greatly admired for his humanitarian work both in my country and around the world.

The final days of our program had been hectic, and I'd had no time to return several books to the university library, so I found myself heading out on a chilly December evening to do so.

I arrived on a campus that was oddly quiet. With final exams beginning the next day, students were absorbed in their studies.

While taking a shortcut through the student union, I came across a posted announcement: "Today from 4 to 6 p.m., Jimmy Carter book signing. Join us!"

My heart sank. Of all the events I had carefully scheduled in my calendar of worthwhile campus events, this one had slipped my notice. It was well past 6. I'd missed this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet a legend.

In irritation, I made my way down the corridor leading outside. As I passed a meeting room, I glimpsed a white-haired man at a long table.

I stopped. Was that who I thought it was?

I stealthily peered through the open doorway. It was.

Carter was methodically signing a pile of books. A formidable bodyguard in a neatly pressed suit stood nearby. No one else was in sight.

I dashed to the adjacent student union bookstore, snatched Carter's book from the shelf, paid the cashier, and sprinted back to the conference room. As I ran, I rehearsed what I'd say: I'd ooze words of admiration, spout intelligent remarks, pose profound questions. This meeting was to be a highlight of my life. I wanted it to be perfect.

I stepped inside the room. With feigned calm, I approached Carter. He looked up with that famous wide smile of his. I opened my mouth and out came ... nothing.

"Mr. Carter," I finally squeaked, "I admire you so much!"

"Why, thank you," he said kindly, prying the book from my nervous grip.

He slowly opened to the front cover.

"And are you a student here?" he asked politely.

"Uh, no."

He waited for further explanation. I frantically searched for something to say and miraculously managed a complete sentence.

"I'm attending an orientation."

He nodded.

"Overseas work."

He looked interested.

"Teaching."

He smiled encouragingly.

"In Taiwan," I added.

"And do you speak Chinese?" he asked while signing my book with a quick stroke of his pen.

"A little."

There was a pause, meant for me to display some of my language expertise. But for the life of me, I couldn't think of a single word to say in my own language, much less another.

"Well, that's good," he continued. "I wish you the best of luck."

"Uh, thank you. Thank you very much."

I took back my book, wanting desperately to say more. Instead, I watched Carter turn back to signing the pile of books as I made a speedy getaway.

I've relived that meeting many times. In those encounters, I don't try to impress with brilliant statements and intellectual chatter. Carter and I simply talk about sensitizing others to the world's cultural differences and establishing understanding among nations. In that meeting, I discover what it takes to be a Nobel Peace Prize winner and, years later, can reflect upon a remarkable conversation with a man who has brought the world's people a little closer to unity and peace.

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