A few words provided the most dramatic moment from Brett Favre’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech in August 2016. During his senior year in high school, Favre was going through a rough spell as quarterback. His father — an ardent proponent of “tough love,” who never complimented Brett, was the head coach, and the assistant coaches argued for benching Brett. Favre overheard his father say something to his coaches:
“I can assure you one thing about my son: He will play better. He will redeem himself. He has it in him.”
Fighting through tears, Favre said,
“And I never let him know that I heard that. I never told anyone else about it until now….But I never forgot that statement….I want you to know dad, I spent the rest of my career trying to redeem myself, and I hope I succeeded.”
Yes, as Favre looked back on his career as one of the most accomplished football players of all-time, the one moment that drove him most was when his father expressed more confidence in Brett than perhaps Brett had in himself, decades ago.
Never doubt that a few words from you, at the right time, can change a person’s life, for good. To be this powerful, words cannot merely comfort; they have to encourage, inspire and challenge.
It can almost seem cruel to challenge a person who is struggling. More than 20 years ago, Claude Steele, the current Dean of the Education School at Stanford, wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, “A valuing teacher-student relationship goes nowhere without challenge, and challenge will always be resisted outside a valuing relationship.”
But saying a few words to the right person at the right time may be the kindest, and most impactful, thing you ever do. You may never know if your words had the intended effect; not everyone has their words read aloud to millions of viewers from a podium in Canton, Ohio.
Angela Maiers is one educator who was fortunate to learn, decades later, the impact a few of her words. Late on a Saturday night, someone knocked on her door:
This vividly demonstrates the veracity of the words of late educator Rita Pierson, who said in a much-watched TED Talk,
“Every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.”
For Richard Turner Morreale, that champion was Mrs. Jessie Gilstrap, his fourth grade teacher. Richard’s alcoholic mother neglected him. Mrs. Gilstrap filled in the gaps, ensuring that Richard ate lunch each day. This nurturing relationship led to the most important words he ever heard. Richard’s mother had shown up drunk at school to hear him read a report, and was asked to leave.
Mrs. Gilstrap pulled Richard aside and said, through tears:
“I want to tell you something and I want you to remember this for the rest of your life. You can be like her, or you can become something incredible. It is your choice.”
Thirty-five years later, Richard wrote an open letter to the family of his deceased teacher to say that he was successful and married to a first grade teacher with four children. The post-script to his letter said it all:
“Mrs. Gilstrap, I opted for incredible.”
In “Want to Empower Students? Expect More of Them,” findingDulcinea explains that the world may never have heard the voices of James Earl Jones and Maya Angelou if not for a few words of “tough love” from teachers that challenged them when they refused to speak.
The stories above all relate to children and teens, but adults are also highly susceptible to the rejuvenating power of well-spoken words. Any sports fan alive in 1999 recalls when Brandi Chastain converted a penalty kick to win the World Cup for the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team. But when Chastain speaks about that World Cup, she focuses on a goal she scored two games earlier — for the opposing team — and how a few encouraging and challenging words gave her the chance to play the role of heroine in the final.
The quarterfinal was against Germany. Women’s soccer was finally getting the attention it deserved, and the pressure on the USA team to win was immense. Five minutes into the game, Brandi had control of the ball in her own end and passed it back to her own goalie, Brianne Curry. However, Curry was not where Chastain expected her to be.
Germany 1, USA 0.
As Chastain walked dejectedly to mid-field, Carla Overbeck intercepted her with these words:
“We have 85 minutes to get that goal back.
We are going to win this game, and you are going to be part of the reason we do.”
USA scored the next goal, but Germany went back ahead just before half-time. During the half-time break, Overbeck told her teammates, “Everything we’ve done in our lifetime comes down to these 45 minutes.” It was critical that the USA score early in the second half. It did so, on what Sports Illustrated now calls the sixth most significant goal in US soccer history. The player who scored this crucial tying goal? Brandi Chastain.
Coach Tony DiCiccio said later, ”I’ve seen many big-time professionals make a mistake like that and they can’t play anymore. Brandi not only played, but she scored the tying goal.” Chastain recently said that after her blunder, she could have thought,
‘’I lost the game. This is terrible. What’s happened?’
Fortunately, Carla didn’t allow that to happen to me.
She gave me courage and strength. She was my impact player.
So, I ask you: please to be ready to be that impact player.
You never know when you’re going to have the opportunity to change someone’s life.”
The final word comes from a child in Joli Barker Erwin’s former third-grade class in McKinney, Texas. Angela Maiers had posed this question to her social media network:
“Am I Serving as Only I Can Serve?”
Most of the adults in Angela’s network struggled to respond. But not Joli’s third graders. One wrote a response that took our breath away:
“Yes because I am using what we learn in class to help others. I feel really good about helping people. Before this year, I didn’t think I could actually be someone’s hope.”
On your worst day, you can be someone’s best hope.
Whose hope will you be today?
This post is an excerpt from this online professional development course on the tenets of Choose2Matter, co-authored by Mark Moran and Angela Maiers. It helps you make the intentional decision each day to be a champion for your students: to see possibilities instead of limits, to use life-affirming words, and to insist they be the best they can be. It includes classroom-ready materials that help your students figure out how they want to change the world, and then helps them do it. Click here for more info!