A new lesson

In early September, nearly 500 elementary schoolchildren sat cross-legged on the gymnasium/multi-purpose room floor, all listening intently to what I had to say. I recounted my early years of poverty and deprivation and my later ones of living in my car — how I’d prayed to God for strength and courage and how God had intervened.

Springfield’s Fulton Elementary is a beautiful, inspiring place, clean and shiny, filled with colorful, eye-catching posters and inspirational messages. The kind of facility you’d want your kids to attend, as if you’d had a hand in designing it. Many parents were present, all enthusiastically greeted and welcomed by staff members. This was my second school keynote address, and I was feeling excited and energized.

“All of you are future leaders,” I told the group. “All of you have unlimited potential and possibilities.”

As I spoke further, it occurred to me that asking the children to repeat whatever I had just said would reinforce my messages.

“I will not be average. I will go above and beyond ordinary expectations!”

“I will refuse the ‘entitlement’ mentality!”

“I will listen to my teachers. They mold, bend and shape their students!”

Everyone responded in perfect unison. Parents were beaming with pride.

I realized then that as a speaker I would always let my audience carry my flow. Their reactions would dictate my direction and spin: “You must apply yourself, work hard and strive to see the positive side of your life!” It worked. They heard me. They repeated.

Just then our Patchy mascot entered and began dance-walking through various sections, trading high-fives with students as he passed them. The kids were delighted, and the place suddenly grew loud with laughter. Is there any better outcome than lessons absorbed amidst fun and humor?

Over time there would be many more presentations — all different, all customized, all fine-tuned yet flexible. I understood the dynamic pep and potency of youthful listeners and their fascination at watching their speaker discover some new awarenesses right along with them. A community of learners! Yes, they would grow and evolve — and so would I.