Friday, July 07, 2006

Leeza Show

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My all time favorite story I get to tell over and over again in my speaking engagements is the power of 3 words that was uttered by my fifth grade teacher many, many years ago. I never forgot it.

About 8 years ago, I was in my New York City apartment one Saturday morning and was thinking about all the people in my life who had made a difference. There were many but my fifth grade teacher's face swam into focus. The image of her powerful smile was crystal clear.

As soon as I saw her in my mind's eye, my attention immediately focused on a way to thank her. I got quiet and reflected on this. A few moments later an idea was born.

Why not thank her on a national talk show? What could be better than that?

The idea was so strong, so powerful and what's more, it felt right. After firing off a letter to six national talk shows, I kept it to myself and waited. Ideas should be allowed to percolate and develop in secret before they are shared with the rest of the world. There is a time and place for everything so I prayed that if it was meant to be, then Mrs. Jordan would be presented with a big surprise at just the right time.

Within two weeks I was atonished to hear back from The View and Leeza (no longer on the air today) and The Gayle King Show (King is Oprah's best friend - her show is also no longer on the air). From that moment on, everything was a dizzying blur.

Of the three shows, the producers of Leeza were quicker to make arrangements while those at The View and The Gayle King Show dragged their feet. My intuition told me to go with Leeza and not wait for the others to make up their minds.

Mrs. Jordan was one of those teachers who never missed a day of class and didn’t want to go to California to accept a "teaching excellence award." Good heavens, her fifth grade students were far more important than some frivolous award!

She was so stubborn that the Leeza producers were forced to enlist the help of her husband, her daughter and even the school principal to convince her to appear on the show. Thanks to their herculean efforts, they were finally able to cajole her into taking a few days off without revealing the real reasons for going.

So far so good.

Less than a week later, she and her daughter boarded a flight to Hollywood while I boarded a different plane out of JFK, several hundred miles away.

When I arrived at the hotel in California, I was shocked to learn that they were staying in a room only one floor above me! Since the taping wasn't scheduled until the next morning and while I wanted to avoid bumping into them, I didn't exactly relish the idea of being cooped up in my room and ordering room service. So I came up with a plan.

In the mood for a little local sightseeing, I put on a pair of dark sunglasses, my favorite baseball cap and then peeked out into the hallway before making a mad dash for the stairways. Yes, I know. I know. Watched too many spy movies. Still I can dream a little can't I?

On the morning of the taping, the hotel security staff came up to my room and escorted me to the service elevator for a ride down down to first floor where a presidential-like limousine was waiting for me behind the hotel.

Forty-five minutes later, the fifth grade teacher and her daughter went through the hotel lobby out to the front where a bell hop was standing at the door of another black limousine.

Talk shows sure know how to treat their guests!

Upon arriving at the Paramount lot, I was led to the "green room," where guests waiting to go on the show sipped tea, coffee or even booze (if they were desperate enough for one). I opted for plain water, my mouth was parched.

While waiting, a very frazzled producer stopped by and quickly requested that I make a short 10-second statement on tape to be played later. I said something like "Mrs. Jordan, you made a very big difference in my life I am here to thank you for it." She snatched the tape and disappeared like there was no tomorrow. I was alone again.

Looking around the room, I was mesmerized by all the photos on the red walls of famous people who were previously on the Leeza show. I was jostled out of my reverie when the door suddenly burst open and the same producer was back.

Mouthing the words, she said, "It's time. Follow me please." I felt a lurch in my stomach. Here we go. The producer hurriedly led me to the studio where Leeza and the studio audience were waiting for me.

After personally introducing herself to me (Leeza was very warm and articulate, instantly putting me at ease), the red dome lights on all the cameras were blinking, which meant they were now taping.

Sitting next to me, Leeza started off the show by asking me what it was Mrs. Jordan did for me over 30 years ago. I related the story about how 3 words, “THAT’S RIGHT STEPHEN” was such a powerful moment and how it forever changed my life.

Pointing to cheap double doors behind me, Leeza said, "Stephen, why don’t you step over to the other side and hide behind those doors? When it’s time for you to come out and surprise Mrs. Jordan, a technician will signal you."

On my way to the hiding place, I stretched my arms out and said, “I hope she recognizes me!”

Once hidden from view, Leeza called out to the teacher, “Okay, come out Mrs. Jordan.”

A camera on the floor with rollers was positioned by the entrance to the studio so that viewers watching television could see the apprehensive teacher make her way in from a different, albeit lower angle. Leeza guided Mrs. Jordan to her seat and gave her a few seconds to get comfortable.

“Do you know why you’re here today, Mrs. Jordan?” Leeza inquired.

“No” she said apprehensively.

“Well, it's a good thing. It's a very good thing. Someone wrote to us and said that you are to be honored for making a very big difference in this person’s life. We’re going to play a tape to see if you recognize this person’s voice.”

“Okay,” said the now quivering teacher. She went to pull out a Kleenex, almost knocking the box off the table.

While all of this was going on, I was watching everything through a closed-circuit monitor on the floor. When I first saw her walk in, I almost let out a yelp. She looked exactly the same and not a day older. I recognized her immediately. Goose bumps spread like wildfire all over my body.

Leeza nodded to some invisible technician to play the recording.

The main camera zoomed in closer to Mrs. Jordan. An instant flash of recognition spread across her face, causing tears to well up.

“Mrs. Jordan, do you know who that was?” Leeza asked gently.


“Well, who was it?”

Stifling a sniffle, she said, “Stephen Hopson

My hand flew to my mouth. After all these years, my favorite teacher still remembered me!

Leeza nodded yet again to the invisible technician who suddenly materialized next to me. It was time to go out and greet my former teacher for the first time in 30 years.

Taking a deep breath, I gave the fragile stage door a powerful shove and swung it open, slammed my right foot forward and opened my arms far and wide, inviting her to come and hug me.

The teacher made her way to where I was standing and hugged me tightly. We didn't want to let each other go. Putting my left arm around her, I made a sweeping motion with my right hand over the audience and whispered, “All this for you.”

There wasn't a dry eye in the house.

We made our way to our seats and she pulled out another Kleenex, this time knocking the box to the floor.


“Mrs. Jordan, you remember Stephen extremely well?”

Dabbing her eyes, she nodded.

“What do you remember about Stephen?” (pictures of me as a child with my dog played in the background)

Glancing upward to gather her thoughts, she said, “Well, he was smart, well behaved and a hard worker.”

Leeza turned to me and said, “Stephen would you like to say a few words?”

I grabbed the former teacher's hand, positioned myself so that we were looking at each other in the eye and said, “Mrs. Jordan, you made a very big difference in my life 30 years ago. You took me under your wing and believed in me. You said "THAT'S RIGHT STEPHEN" and that forever changed my life. You’re here on the show today because I wanted to thank you for that.”

She reached for the Kleenex box again, with Leeza standing nearby - just in case.

Sobbing, Mrs. Jordan said, “Thank you Stephen, thank you.”

Click here for some photos of us posing after the show was over.

Food for thought: You don't necessarily have to thank someone on a national talk show but is there someone who really turned your life around and you want to remember and thank that person this week?
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