“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” So said Mother Teresa, an Indian missionary known for her own world-changing goodness. I know she was right, and yet I find myself struggling sometimes to get those kind words to travel the incredibly short distance between my brain and my mouth (which is confusing since some really dumb statements can make the same voyage lickety-split).
I think kind thoughts, but then I’m often too apprehensive and overly analytical to vocalize them. If I tell him he’s wearing a gorgeous tie, will he think I’m flirting with him? If I ask her if she’s lost weight, will she think I’m implying she needed to? Even more often I’m just too forgetful–I intend to pass on a genuine compliment, I really do, but then something else distracts me, and it may be weeks later before the thought reoccurs.
I admire those people who can so easily and sincerely speak a kind word, especially since I have often been the recipient of their kindness and know first-hand its power. In some cases, my day was greatly improved; in others, my entire life was forever enriched.
A few days ago I finally put the finishing touches on a week-long project of painting the basement. I have never been a fan of physical labor; consequently, my wimpy little body was suffering the effects of repeatedly reaching, bending, squatting, and going up the ladder, down the ladder, and up the ladder again. Even my thumbs hurt. I took a long, scalding hot shower and swallowed more than the recommended dosage of Advil–and then I wanted to ever-so-gently ease into my recliner with ice packs, heating pads, and pillows (did I mention I am a wimp?), but I still had errands to run and groceries to buy, so instead I eased ever-so-gently into my car and headed to town. In the end, I was glad I made that trip.
As I was hobbling into the grocery store, I was greeted by a very sweet lady who is the mother of one of my students (one of the few parents who isn’t a former student of mine). She inquired about my summer, and then she asked if she had read correctly in the newspaper that I was 50 years old. I told her that was correct, and she said, “I had no idea! I thought you weren’t a day over 40–maybe even 38!” I told her my oldest son had recently turned 26, so yes, I really was that old, and she said, “Well, I just wanted to tell you that you look GREAT!”
I thanked her and told her she had just made my day–and she had. It may have been such a small act of kindness to her, but considering how my body felt, her words were sweet elixir. Suddenly my back straightened, and even my thumbs felt better. Now, I realize I’ve just admitted to an abundance of vanity (if you’re nowhere near 50, you may not understand), but I will gladly accept being 50 every day–or at least for the next six months–if there is just one kind person out there who believes I don’t look a day over 40 (or even 38!).
Writing this blog has also brought many compliments my way. I’ve been writing about my own thoughts and experiences, so it has been exciting to learn that my words have “struck a chord” with several of my readers. I’ve received many positive comments from friends and colleagues and especially from former students who have not only remarked on my writing but have also shared memories of and expressed gratitude for my teaching. None of them has had to respond to my writing, which has made hearing from them even more special, and their kind words have been both encouraging and empowering.
My life has been particularly enriched by a powerful letter I received from a former student a few months ago when I was at one of the lowest points of my professional career. The day before one of my students had gotten very ill at school, so much so that we called an ambulance to transport him to an area hospital. I was worried about him, especially when I found out later that night that he had been airlifted to a children’s hospital and was not doing well. The next morning I tried to comfort some of his distraught friends and convince them that he would be okay; then I had the school nurse call the hospital to check his status, and a short time later she came to my office to tell me the prognosis was not good. I should have been stronger, but when the nurse left my office, I closed the door and sobbed. I tried to pray but felt powerless. I picked up the phone to call my minister, but then I remembered he was preaching a difficult funeral that day, and I put the phone back down–I didn’t want to add to his burden. I felt devastated and alone, but I knew I had to “get myself together”; I needed to dry my tears and put on a brave face for the sake of my students and teachers. Since classes were in session and there shouldn’t be anyone in the halls, I decided to walk through the building a few times in an attempt to regain my composure.
When I got back to my office about ten minutes later, I noticed a pink envelope lying in the center of my desk. The envelope was addressed to me and had a picture of a dove and a cross drawn on the front of it; on the back, the return address identified the sender as a former student currently living in Berkeley, California (a student I have not seen since he graduated years ago). The envelope was postmarked six days prior. I asked my secretary if she had retrieved the envelope from my mailbox in the teachers’ lounge and placed it on my desk; she had not. I asked her if anyone else had been in my office, and she said no.
When I opened the envelope, I found a beautifully written letter from this former student, sending me Easter greetings and detailing the struggles he had been through in the years since high school–but also explaining how he had triumphed over those struggles. At the top of the letter, he had handwritten this note: “Mrs. Eubank, may you always be aware of the people you touch.” At the bottom of the letter, he had included this scripture: “I tell you truly: You will weep and mourn while the world rejoices; you will grieve for a time, but your grief will be turned to joy.” (St. John, 16:20)
Now, believe what you want, but I choose to believe that his letter appeared on my desk on that day–at that particular moment–with that particular message–for a reason. At first it gave me chills, but then I was filled with an overwhelming calmness and the strength I had been searching for. I had found my “brave face,” and a few hours later I was even able to add a smile to it when I heard from the hospital that my student was doing much better and should make a full recovery.
To this day I do not know how the letter came to be on my desk (instead of in my mailbox where it might have remained several days before I retrieved it). I now carry the letter in my purse so that every time I see its pink envelope I am reminded of the power of the words inside.
Every other letter, note, or card that I have received from students over the years is kept in a scrapbook in my office; occasionally when I’m having a bad day, I pull out the scrapbook and re-read its contents. It’s a tremendous ego booster, but it also reminds me that what I do really is important and that the bad days are so few in comparison to the good. A few years ago, inspired by my scrapbook (and for once, spontaneous enough to kick apprehension out the window), I decided to write a long-overdue letter of thanks to one of my former teachers. He was my eighth grade history teacher, a kind and gentle man who instilled in me a love for history–especially the Civil War era–that exists to this day. I wanted to tell him how much his teaching had influenced me, and even though I had chosen a different subject to study, all those years ago he had inspired me to become an educator.
A few months later I received a very nice letter back from my teacher’s wife. She told me how much joy the letter had brought him in his final hours; he had received it just two weeks before he died from cancer.
That was an opportunity I almost missed. How many other opportunities have I let slip by because I have been too worried about what others might think? Too many. I have seen with my own eyes and felt with my own heart “the power of a kind word” spoken by others, and there is no legitimate reason why I can’t do a better job of spreading such kindness myself.