Friday, August 14, 2009

Variation on a Theme: Simple Acts have Profound Effects

Last night I wrote about the Ripple Effect and how even the smallest things we say or do can have an impact on those around us. I used the check-out line story to illustrate what this story illuminates. It involves an old high school friend, Jack Black. To be clear, this is not the Jack Black of comedy and movie fame!

A dozen or so years ago, I received an unexpected email from an old high school classmate. The message read, “This is Jack Black, a blast from your past. Please call me collect, I would really like to talk to you.” It included a phone number.

I hadn’t spoken to anyone from my high school in 25 years, but intrigued at the message, I picked up the phone and dialed the number.

"This is Jack."

"Hi, Jack, it’s been a very long time. This is Betsy. You sent a message asking me to call."

There was a moment of silence. "Betsy! I can’t believe I’m finally talking to you. I’ve been looking for you for years." Did he really sound almost choked with emotion?

"Why in the world would you be looking for me?" I asked.

"Because I wanted, and needed, to thank you. If it wasn’t for you, I would never be where I am today."

I was more than a little taken aback by that statement. "Jack, I have no idea what you’re talking about."

"Do you remember back in high school, when you helped me with my schoolwork?"

I laughed. "You mean when I gave you the answers?"

"Exactly. But the nature of what you did is not the issue. What you don’t realize is how that has affected my life. I’ve thought about it for a long time and I’ve come to the conclusion that I owe my current career and successful life to you. Let me tell you a story…"

Once upon a time, there was a juvenile delinquent named Jack Black. Jack was the class clown, always in trouble, never did his school work, smoked, drank beer, and was always being dragged to the police station for nuisance offences. He spent more time in the principal’s office than any other kid in class. But there was this one girl who felt sorry for him. She was the class nerd, a bit of a braniac. In the way of the old-style, alphabetized, good Catholic schools, she sat right behind him in all his classes.

All through high school, Betsy ‘helped’ Jack…through Latin, through English, through Geometry and Algebra. Although she wouldn’t cheat enough to give him "A’s" she helped just enough to keep him on track. At the end of the four years, Jack got his diploma and graduated with the rest of the class.

He eventually fell under the influence of the police he so frequently had contact with, and ended up pursuing a career in law enforcement. Can you believe that? The class screw-up became a police officer. But as life went on, Jack realized that he was spending all of his time dealing with the next generation of juvenile delinquents. Hundreds of ‘Jacks’, they were as miserable and misunderstood as he had been all those long, growing-up years.

He decided there had to be a better way to keep those kids from ending up at the police station. Jack couldn’t do anything about their home life, and that meant the only way to have enough time to exert an influence was during school hours. If only he could have some impact on these troubled kids, maybe they wouldn’t keep ending up on the wrong end of the legal system. But to do that, he needed to go to college and get a teaching degree. He made up his mind right then and there, started researching what he needed to do, and eventually enrolled in college…something he could never have done if he hadn’t graduated from high school.

He knew that if he had to work for a GED first, he would have been discouraged and he might not have done it. But thanks to the empathy of the braniac girl that sat behind him for four years he had that diploma. He enrolled in college and got his Bachelor’s degree and then his Master’s degree in education, and now he teaches troubled and hard-case teens. He absolutely loves what he’s doing, making an impact on the lives of kids who really need good adult influence, but he never could have done any of it without Betsy’s help.

"I bet you didn’t know that your simple acts of sympathy toward the class bad boy would end up changing his life forever, not to mention the lives of all the kids he helps."

"Good grief, Jack. All I did was give you a few answers."

"Trust me when I say, if not for you, I really wouldn’t be where I am today. And I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. Now, how do you feel about coming to our class reunion? I would very much like to see you."

"Jack, if you want me to come, I’ll be happy to attend. Just e-mail the information to me with enough advance warning."

When the phone call ended, I couldn’t help but think of Jack’s gratitude as a huge overstatement of my influence in his life. After all, we were just high school kids, and the things we did back then didn’t matter a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, right? But when I thought about it in the context of the ripple effect, the picture became incredibly clear.

Whether I wanted to admit it or not, those few things I didn’t think twice about doing as a reckless teenager had made a significant difference in Jack’s life. But I think what amazed me most was the level of maturity he had attained; enough to recognize that my simple acts as a youth had profound effects on his life, and in the way of the ripple effect, that impact was being passed on to all the students he was influencing as a teacher.

Now I wonder what else I might have done in blind youth or ignorance that had an impact on someone else…good or bad. One could go a bit crazy worrying about it; so my philosophy in life is to move forward, always, and with great care that I
not do or say things that may have a negative impact down the line. How about you?