The other day, I ran into an old friend, Mike. We’d gone to grammar school together back in New Jersey, and I hadn’t seen him in years.
“I was just talking about you!” he said. “I took my family skiing for the first time, and I told them about my very first ski trip in seventh grade, to Shawnee Mountain. I need to thank you for bringing skiing into my life, and my kids’ lives. They loved it.”
“Wow,” I said. “How cool! But it wasn’t just me, it was thanks to Ms. Patterson, too.”
Yes, I’d planned our school’s first ski trip, back in seventh grade. But it wouldn’t have happened without the help and support of our teacher Ms. Patterson, who pushed me, supported me, and consistently raised the bar on what I thought was possible.
Throughout middle school, she challenged me. I rewrote papers, did volunteer work, and became officer of various clubs, all under her strict eye. She’d helped and guided me in planning that ski trip – I’d had to pitch the idea to the board of education, visit ski resorts, map out pricing structures make flyers, and so on. She helped me every single step of the way, challenging me to go further, expanding my vision of what I could do.
When I got overwhelmed, she said, “Just take it one step at a time.” When I thought something was good enough, she told me, “I know you can do better.” When something was difficult, she told me to imagine it was possible, then make a plan.
Her persistence and belief in me had shaped my adolescence. I’d even written a speech about what a difference she’d made. And now here I was, years and years later, learning that I wasn’t the only one impacted by her actions.
“You should tell her,” said Karin. “Everyone else knows what a difference she’s made. She should know, too.”
Karin was right.
So, nervously, I called the school. Ms. Patterson was still teaching there, they said, and I left a message for her.
When she called me back, I explained everything – my speech, Mike’s kids, how her raising the bar has had ripple effects throughout my life.
“So I wanted to say thank you,” I said, finally. “For everything you did.”
First there was silence. Then I heard a sniffle. “All these years of teaching, and no one’s ever said that before,” she said.
I was dumbfounded.
“Thank you for calling,” she said. “You’ve made my day. No, my whole year.”
The beauty of that moment was that the impact had gone full circle. After all she’d done for me, all the countless ways she showed me I was capable of more than I knew, I got to do one small thing for her.
We are all powerful individuals, with the ability to influence people’s lives in ways we don’t know are possible. It was Ms. Patterson’s mission to help kids grow and learn, and boy, did she accomplish that. But she had no idea the good that she’d done, until someone told her.
I have two reasons for telling this story, now, around the holidays. One is to challenge you to think of someone who’s made a difference in your life. Someone who’s encouraged you, pushed you, supported you, believed in you. Who is that? How can you honor them?
The gift of acknowledgement, of thanks, is so important to give. And I can tell you, it feels amazing.
My second reason is this: to challenge you to go out into the world and be someone’s Ms. Patterson. Maybe that’s doing something big, or maybe it’s something small. All your actions has ripple effects, even if no one calls you out of the blue thirty years later to tell you. As William James said, “Act as if you make a difference. You do!”
Go out there and shine.