Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Ripple Effect - A flashback to the early 90's.....

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Have you ever thrown a flat rock across a body of water and watched it transform into a bunch of ripples? That's the impact my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Jordan, had on my life when she uttered three words so many years ago, THAT'S RIGHT STEPHEN!

One of the most requested speeches I do nowadays contains the story of the day she said those words. She never knew the impact of those three words until many years later when I surprised her on a national talk show (Leeza, now off the air).

Is it possible that you are making an extraordinary difference in the lives of others without even knowing it? Today I am encouraging you to be more aware of your inner power, which has the potential of becoming a ripple effect touching far more people than those in your immediate surroundings.

The Mrs. Jordan story reminds me of a speech I did in the early nineties when I was just getting my feet wet in public speaking. A Kiwanis club in Brooklyn had invited me to speak to their members. Since I didn't know what to talk about, I decided that I would use one of the Chicken Soup for the Soul stories. The topic was “Making a Difference.”

This particular club held their meetings in an Italian restaurant somewhere in the middle of eastern Brooklyn. Most civic clubs meet in restaurants where they conduct business while having a meal (usually lunch, sometimes dinner). Many a fledging speaker got their start by speaking for food. I got to enjoy some of the greatest meals in exchange for a twenty to thirty minute speech. It gave me an opportunity to try out a new topic for size and test its impact.

I took the subway to Brooklyn, arriving at the restaurant thirty minutes early. The purpose was to give me an opportunity to check out the room, get acquainted with the person who would introduce me, get a feel for the layout of the room and perform a sound check (with the help of a hearing person, of course).

Dinner was served while regular business was conducted. Before I knew it, it was time for me to be introduced. Throughout the meal, I had an opportunity to get to know the club president who sat next to me.

“I’m really looking forward to your speech tonight,” he had said.

They say that public speaking and death are the two biggest fears people have. It isn’t easy getting up in front of a room full of people whose eyes are feasted upon you, watching every move you make. There’s also the possibility that someone may not like your speech. They’re easy to spot. Either they’re snoring, fidgeting, looking down on the floor or staring at you vacantly. They are the ones who sit in stoney silence while everyone else is cracking up. It’s tempting for an inexperienced speaker to try and win them over at the expense of 98 percent of the people who seem to be enjoying themselves. I was thinking of that when the club president gently nudged me.

He leaned over as if to whisper in my ear. I automatically backed away so that I could read his lips. His face crumbled into an embarrassed laugh mouthing, “Oops, I’m sorry, I forgot! I’m going to introduce you now.”

After a brief introduction, I started my speech by sharing the “Blue Ribbon Story” from one of the earlier Chicken Soup books. The story always made me cry everytime I read and re-read it, so I felt it would make for a great topic. My intention was to illustrate the power of making a difference in other people's lives.

The story was about a young school teacher who had an idea for a class project. She wanted to see the impact of the project not only on her students, but also on those in the community.

Each student was given three blue ribbons, the words “Who You Are Makes A Difference” of which were printed on them. The students were instructed to think of a person who made a difference in their lives. Whoever they thought of would be the first recipient of the blue ribbon. The first receipient would then be instructed to pass on the second ribbon in the same way to someone else, who in turn would give it to a third individual. The third person would report back to the student the impact of the blue ribbon campaign.

A junior executive at a local company was the first person to receive one, given by a young boy from the class who wanted to show appreciation for the help he got for career planning. The boy pinned the blue ribbon on the executive’s shirt and asked him to find someone who made an impact on the man’s life.

Later that day, the junior executive went in to see his boss, who was known for being grouchy. He asked to see the boss for a few moments and said that he admired him for being creative. The boss was very surprised. The junior executive followed through by giving him the second ribbon, explaining what he was doing and for him to report the results of the third ribbon to the young boy. The final ribbon was placed in the hands of the boss.

The boss went home and waited for his fourteen-year old son to come home. He sat the boy down and explained what happened to him at work. “The most incredible thing happened to me today. I was in my office and one of my employees came in and said he admired me and gave me a blue ribbon for being a creative genius.” The father explained to the boy that while he was driving home, he was trying to think of someone to give the third and final blue ribbon. “I thought about who I wanted to honor and thought about you. I want to honor you.”

The father explained that he was very busy at work and when he came home, he didn’t pay much attention to the boy. “Sometimes I scream at you for not getting good enough grades in school and for your bedroom being a mess, but somehow tonight, I just wanted to sit here and, well, just let you know that you do make a difference to me. Besides your mother, you are the most important person in my life. You’re a great kid and I love you.”

The boy was startled by the frankness coming from his father and started to sob uncontrollably. He looked up at his father and said that he was planning to kill himself that night. The boy told his father that he didn’t think he was loved but now that he knew otherwise, he wasn’t going to. Note: This story was slightly edited and paraphrased but its source came from the following: "Chicken Soup for the Soul...101 Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit," published 1993, ISBN 1-55874-262-X by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen (p. 19).

It impacted almost everyone in the restaurant that night, especially the club president. There was not one dry eye in the room.

I wrapped up by reminding everyone that they could be making a difference in someone else’s life without even knowing it. Then I sat down. The club president picked up the wooden hammer and banged against the gong, signaling the end of the meeting.

I looked out the window and saw to my dismay that it was pouring outside. Heavy rain was cascading down the windows. The raindrops were illuminated by the street lights outside. Suddenly I realized I didn’t bring an umbrella and murmured to myself, “Darn, it’s raining; I’m going to get wet. Oh well!”

As soon as I said that, someone tugged at my sleeve. I turned around to find the club president standing there. He was asking if I wanted a ride to the subway station. I gratefully accepted.

His umbrella was big enough to cover both of us while we walked to his car. As we pulled away, he drove slowly, as if he didn’t want to drop me off so quickly. I could tell there was something on his mind. He was in deep thought, as if he was trying to figure out what he was going to say.

Switching on the night light (it was totally dark by that point), he said, “Your speech about making a difference really hit me hard tonight. I want to thank you for coming out to Brooklyn and sharing that story with us.”

He continued, “It made me realize that I’ve never told my sons that I loved them. I’m going to sit them down and tell them exactly that. Thanks for reminding me.”

I sat there in stunned silence. I couldn’t believe how much of a difference I had made in this person’s life simply by choosing that story. There I was, a fledging speaker, already making a difference on a set of boys I would never get to meet.

We finally arrived at the subway station. I turned to him and firmly shook his hand, saying, “Thank you for letting me know how much of a difference my talk had on you. I know your boys will forever remember what you're about to tell them tonight. They will never forget it.” Tears were rolling down the man's face. I gave him a bear hug, squeezed his hands one final time, and got out of the car.

Standing on the curb, I watched him the tailights fade into the night. When he turned the corner and was out of sight, I realized I was shivering. I was completely soaked!

As is true with so many things in life, I never found out what happened after that. I can only surmise those boys were forever changed. That's the ripple effect you could be causing without knowing about it!

Food for thought: Never underestimate the power of making a difference in the life of another person. You just never know what your words or your smile will do. It might even save someone's life. Think about it.
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