Most of us want to make a difference in this world. We hope to leave it a bit better than we received it, but at the end of each day, we wonder if we are making any kind of impact at all. We desire something drastic, a tsunami of change.
As a teacher for 15 years, I was sometimes able to receive instant gratification in this endeavor. A child whose reading comprehension skills skyrocket. The lightbulb moment when something finally clicks. The kid who wants to read ahead because he’s fallen in love with a book for the first time. When my students made immediate progress I felt like I was doing something right.
Most of these moments of influence though weren’t “high on the mountaintop” moments. They weren’t even giant waves of change. They happened in the middle, in the muck and the mire of mediocrity. Those days, weeks, even months in which I was teaching like my hair was on fire, but nothing seemed to happen. There were no epiphanies. No lightbulbs blinking on. No trumpets sounding the fanfare. The sweet, mousy girl in the back row doesn’t suddenly blurt out that you are her favorite teacher or that the curriculum is just what she’s been missing in her life.
A beautiful quiet student named Corey appears in my classroom. I know she is the daughter of a former colleague who had passed away from skin cancer just weeks earlier. I want to hug this girl, let her know if she needs anything during this unimaginably difficult time in her life, I’m here for her. But I don’t want to make it awkward and more emotional for her, so I treat her as I would any misplaced student. I kindly direct her to the counselor’s office, and I have no idea the impact this fourteen-year-old will come to have on my life.
No, instead our influence is microscopic. They are tiny ripples. Some so small we aren’t even cognizant of their creation. Imagine that you and I are skipping stones. It’s a sunny spring day. The water is calm. As a gentle breeze blows, we carefully select our stones, choosing the smoothest and the flattest. It takes a few tries to remember the technique, but soon we are skipping rocks across the water.
Plink. Plink. Splunk!
“I don’t recall how, but I ended up in Jena’s broadcast journalism class…I learned a lot about journalism, but I also learned of her preference for coke in a can, never in a bottle. I learned that reading was really cool, and Harry Potter was the coolest… And it was during her class that I stared at the TV, watching two airplanes strike the World Trade Center, not understanding how significant it was at the time.” –Corey
At the end of each toss, the rock sinks and we think it’s over. But the change in the water is just beginning. The submersion of that rock has created one ripple.
And another. Each bigger than the one before.
Dozens of ripples, each their own tiny waves, push their way from the splunk. The original rock has gently fallen into its new home at the bottom of the river, forgotten. But the waves continue.
“During my time, over the years in Jena’s classes, she changed my world. Without knowing it, she helped to shape me at such an impressionable and vulnerable point in my life. She was smart, she was kind, and she truly cared about me. She took me under her wing and made me part of her family. As the years went on, we vacationed together, I watched her boys and swam in Aunt Betty’s pool, and when the time came, I was in the delivery room for Gracie’s birth. Jena had become more than a teacher and friend to me. She had become my second mom.” –Corey
Most of the time, we want to be the tsunami of revolution, but instead we get to create the thousands of ripples, within each the possibility of change.
But here’s the thing. I once thought we are the rocks, plinking briefly until that last splunk. Sinking to the bottom. Landing. Our time and possibilities coming to a close after just one skip. The End.
But we aren’t the rock.
We are the ones skipping the stones, and each stone is a act of kindness or compassion. With each toss, we are sharing love and hoping it makes a small ripple of difference in this world.
“When I learned of her cancer diagnosis, I was crushed. All my memories of her flooded my mind and heart, and I knew I had to reach out to her. Jena is immensely important to me, and I want to be there for her the way she was for me…I want her to know that she isn’t alone. Nor are her children, nor are you. I want her to know that I still love and cherish her, and the experiences with her helped to make my high school memories happy, when they had every reason to be sad.” –Corey
As we stand on the waters edge, if we wait, if we persevere, all of those tiny ripples will return to us in the thousands. We skip our rocks as best we can, getting better at the technique with age. Becoming more cautious about which rocks we choose. We continue to try and in doing so we change the course. We affect everything and everyone in tiny ways.
Each ripple pushes the next one, and we GET TO be a part of it.
For my teaching friends, we’ve entered that long haul, the time between Christmas and the end of the academic year, in which just about everyone in your school would rather be playing outside. But this is the ultimate takeaway today. You, my friend, get to. YOU GET TO. It’s not that you have to go to work each day; you get to. You don’t have to prepare amazing lessons and motivate children; you get to. You get to tie shoelaces, give hugs, extend kindness, share yourself with your kids. You get to be a superhero, a confidante, a nurse, a manager, an inspirer. You might be the only joyful person a student experiences today. And tomorrow, you’ll get to get out of bed and do all of this again; you get to.
Please don’t substitute “have to” for “get to.” How we choose to look at a situation can have more of an impact than how we deal with the situation.
And that matters. Each ripple matters. Someday when you are grappling with a life-changing diagnosis, you just might receive a letter from a student you love. You will weep as what you always suspected is written on paper. And you will thank God for the appearance of this lifeline when you most needed it.
You make a difference in thousands of ripples you get to create every single day.