A Speech That Made Us Feel Like Kings

The run-down urban elementary school I attended more years ago than I like to count wouldn't even be in the running with the spanking new schools in our suburb today, schools with state-of-the-art computers and programs that offer every shading of instruction imaginable to challenged through advanced students.

On reflection, however, I realize that my underfunded, overcrowded city school with its dingy hallways and chipped paint offered a good many "educational opportunities," as they would now be called.

One of the most important of these took place during a Friday assembly. A minor political functionary had come to speak about the upcoming elections. He wasn't allowed to mention his candidate by name, but perhaps he felt a patriotic lecture might have the effect of persuading some of us to go home and encourage our parents to vote. He spoke at length, and we became increasingly bored. As he looked out on row upon row of restless adolescents, the tubby politician must have realized he was losing his audience, for at last he drew himself up to his inconsiderable height and said something that finally got our attention.

Waving a beefy finger at us, he said he could tell, just by looking at this group, that sitting in the assembly hall that day were two or three children who one day would be famous.

This got a big round of applause from his startled audience, and, emboldened by his success, our speaker held up his hand for silence. "No," he said solemnly as he scanned our earnest faces, "I was wrong. There aren't just two or three here. I can tell that you're a special bunch, that there are 10 - no, make that a dozen - right here in this room, who will be famous one day!"

The auditorium exploded with applause, and I clapped like mad with the rest. It was only years later, when I saw the reaction of youngsters to Jesse Jackson's famous "I am somebody!" speech that I saw anything similar. When I saw those children before the Rev. Mr. Jackson, their wide eyes blazing with hope, I felt a shock of recognition and realized I'd been there, too.

That day, as the applause died down, I looked about me and had second thoughts. All I saw were nondescript kids either bigger or smaller than I. I could see nothing in their faces that promised or even hinted at fame in the offing. But, I reasoned, if this guy saw it, maybe it was there. And while I wasn't foolish enough to think I was among the best two or three in the crowded auditorium, it was just possible I might be among the best 10 or, even more likely, the best dozen.

I walked home that day feeling as though I'd been given a view of far-off but clearly attainable horizons. Of course I hadn't the foggiest notion of just how the gentleman's promised fame and fortune would come about, but then and for weeks after my world glistened with possibilities. And for a long time to come the unlikely prediction was tucked comfortingly in the back of my mind, there to haul out and examine when I needed to do so.

As time went on, visions of accepting an Academy Award or receiving a Medal of Honor for some great though unspecified deed faded and evolved into something quite different. Somewhere along the line I made the switch from wanting to be famous to simply wanting to do something well. But the promise of that Friday morning was with me all through adolescence, and more than once it was responsible for my sticking with something I might otherwise have given up.

Politicians get a bad rap, especially in my city, but it was because of a politician that I first thought I might actually accomplish something in my life.

I'm truly grateful for the possibilities glimpsed during that Friday assembly, and though it's a bit late, I'd like to thank a certain rotund, fervent, absolutely convincing politician.

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