Make a Difference
Time can make a difference. My retirement from teaching five years ago opened up my calendar to a variety of activities. Most of all, I am drawn to opportunities to be around young people. Their energy is inspiring and curious. For me, it is important to stay current.
Recently, I volunteered to conduct mock business interviews in the high school where I taught for ten years. I have participated for several years in this program and it is one of my favorites.
The goal is to simulate a job interview with a high school junior. First, we formally greet one another as the student presents an electronic resume. After reviewing his or her personal information, I ask questions about career ideas and future plans. I encourage the students to keep good eye contact, stay engaged, and pretend to be in an adult world for a moment.
It is fun. Some students jump right in to the scenario. Those are the ones who have dressed in more formal wear than on an ordinary school day. Hair is combed and there is no gum chewing. Sometimes, as we shake hands, I detect the moisture of a sweaty palm, so I flash a smile and give an assurance that we will have fun.
Of course, there are always some juniors who are only mildly interested in the business class requirement. For others, the day’s activity catches them off-guard. Some honestly have no clue what they want to do after high school. For all of the above, I remind them of the eventual need to exit home. A life in their parent’s basement with multiple bags of Doritos is not an option.
“I see you want to join the military.”
The words under the Career Choice heading on my third student’s resume announced his intention.
“Do you have a family member in the military?”
I was looking for a connection from the seventeen-year old young man from which to build a meaningful conversation.
“No, they are all dead.”
Oh no! I panicked and worried that I was opening a fresh wound.
“My grandfather and great-grandfather were in the Army. I considered the Army and the Marines. I want to join the Army but my mother does not want me to.”
He clarified the potentially uncomfortable detail, but added a present-day challenge.
As so often in my teaching career, my momma bear instincts crawl out in times of perceived family turmoil and I spoke. Unfiltered.
“I understand. Mothers want to protect their children.”
“But I want to make a difference.”
The young man’s clear blue eyes did not blink. They looked directly into mine with a steely determination. His back was ramrod straight and a flesh horizontal line sealed his lips.
While I was processing his declaration, the young man continued. Unprompted.
“I was diagnosed with Asperger’s but I am better now. I do not think I could be a Marine. I want to be in the Army.”
His expression did not change. I did not react to his personal revelation.
My next interviewee waited across the room and I knew I did not have unlimited time to dig deeper. But, there was so much more I wanted to know and say. You see, this stranger’s personal dilemma invited me into his life and I wanted to validate it.
I admired his commitment to a such a worthwhile goal. Most of the students I interview share typical dreams about a specific college leading to a successful career and a comfortable life style. As for military service, most students want to follow in the footsteps of a sibling or parent. But I have never heard a student say, I want to make a difference.
Continuing to feel the pressure from the time constraint, I cobbled together a feeble closing.
“I see that you are at a cross roads here. I hope that you will carefully weigh all sides. But in the end, you must be true to yourself. Best of luck to you.”
Coming to the close of our encounter, I feared I sounded too preachy as his azure eyes attached themselves to my gaze. After a few more seconds, he stood up, and walked away. He briefly looked back and I saw a slight smile rising from the corner of his lips. This was the first change in his expression. And then, he left.
That evening, I continued to process that particular student’s eight-minute heartfelt conversation.
Perhaps the appearance of his Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis had prompted his mother to wrap an extra layer of protection around her precious son. I know how cruel kids can be. I hoped he had not been marginalized in his earlier years due to his label. Were there siblings? There was no mention of a father. Could his desire even be accomplished? His earnest eyes planted in my mind.
Why was this moment sticking with me? Why did his words consume me?
I want to make a difference.
Was I overreacting to a teenage moment? Was I reading too much into his words?
All I can say is that I was struck at how this student seemed to leap frog through his young life’s time-line and firmly position himself on the point where all of us should eventually land. Maybe the military will not be the recipient of that young man’s worthy goal. But, I felt he was going to make a difference. He already did.
In the shadow of that memorable conversation, I asked myself, what have I done to make a difference?
As I pondered my answer, I could feel my heart fill with the gratitude for the day’s experience. The young student probably did not realize the impact of his words. But they gave me pause and moved me enough to share them with you.
Imagine if each one of us could make a difference with one person each day. Think about it…why not?