COMMENTARY: Changing Lives

Long ago when I was a law professor, I was at a conference and a man I didn’t recognize greeted me warmly. He said he wanted to thank me for changing his life.

I was embarrassed as I listened to him tell me that he had met me after a speech I had given at his law school. He said he was discouraged and disheartened about ever becoming a lawyer and that he was ready to quit. But I had counseled him and he had decided to stick it out.

He said he had been looking for me so he could tell me personally that not only had he graduated but had just become the nation’s first Mexican-American law school dean.

His decision to seek me out to share the story was a generous and much-appreciated gift I’ll never forget. But his description did not ignite my memory and I felt shallow and ashamed. Here this fellow was expressing deep gratitude for something I could not recall. I only began to forgive myself when I realized I didn’t remember the incident because I engaged in this sort of discussion with students often, and this conversation was not extraordinary for me. That’s what teachers are supposed to do: share their knowledge, provide alternative perspectives and offer encouragement and inspiration.

“Teachable moments” often arise unannounced and unnoticed. Teachers and parents hardly ever know what will be remembered and what will be forgotten. But if we want to have an occasional lasting impact we have to have faith that at least some of the things we say will really matter. And since we can’t always know what those things are, we have to presume that everything we say will matter.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

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