Someone shared with me a wonderful, powerful story about the difference we can make in someone’s life, that each of us has the potential to touch a life in significant ways. Here is the story, an excerpt from A Cup of Comfort Big Book of Prayer:
Korlane, one of the college students in my public speaking class, walked up to me before class and whimpered, “Can’t you just choose a topic for me, Mr. Drum? It doesn’t really matter what my topic is, does it? This is just speech class. Nobody really listens to other people speak.” Korlane certainly did know how to make me feel good about my teaching discipline. Still,if I had a penny for every time a student had said this to me the weekend before speeches were due, i would be a mogul of the copper-tubing industry. it is a disturbing trend– so many young people have so little faith that they can make a difference to anyone else. It is a symptom of a world that has slowly convinced generations of people that life matters only when a person achieves great things in significant ways. But we couldn’t be more wrong.
I looked at this young lady, seeing the potential she couldn’t. I asked her to think about experiences in her life that were emotionally moving, persuasive, angering, frustrating, or simply interesting.
“Like what?” she asked, peeking over the top of her glasses like a wise old granny.
“I don’t know. Everyone has something different to share. Your view of life is unique, and it’s quite possible that something you have experienced or observed is a subject someone else needs to hear about. perhaps somebody in your family works for a company you admire. You could talk about that company or the careers it offers. Or, on a more serious note, maybe you have a friend who has suffered through a tragedy, and you want to inform others about how to be helpful to friends in need. Who knows? Maybe you’re a pizza connoisseur, and you can tell us all how to make the perfect pizza right in our own homes. See what I’m getting at, Korlane?”
She nodded at me, the gears starting to spin. “Thanks for the help. I’ll see you Monday.” I quickly reminded her to call or e-mail if she needed anymore help over the weekend. I had a gut feeling I might hear from her, but Saturday and Sunday ticked by with no communication. I took that as a good sign.
Monday morning arrived and lugged with it sleepy students dressed in casually formal, albeit wrinkled, attire. You could tell it was speech day and that most students were ill-equipped to work the complexities of an iron before 8:00 A.M. I arrived in the classroom a few minutes early to check out the audio-visual equipment, and I noticed Korlane in the back, rehearsing quietly. “Looks like you figured something out,” I said with a bit of reassurance in my voice.
“Can I go last? I need to work up my nerve before I speak.” She paused for a moment but started up again before I could answer. “I don’t know if my speech will knock anyone’s socks off, but I feel good about the topic I’ve chosen. You really helped me figure it all out on Friday, Mr. Drum.”
“Last you are, Korlane. Consider it your reward for all your hard work. I’ll look forward to hearing what you have to say.” I smiled, proud that she had found her voice. As other students began pouring into the class in their mummy-like states, Korlane took her seat and continued to go over her note cards. I made a few announcements and reminded the class about the timing signals that I would use in order to help them properly pace themselves in their speeches.
I moved to my seat and called for the first speaker. I listened to speeches on topics ranging from how to properly sheer the hair off a sheep to how to quickly create irresistible pickup lines to fanatical arguments about why golf should not be considered a real sport. it was a tasty smorgasbord of topics that kept class lively and interesting.
Finally the time came for Korlane to give her speech. She smiled nervously as she stood and made her way to the podium. Her first words were sturdy, full of confidence, and quickly tuned the audience in to the personal nature of her speech. “A few months ago, I was diagnosed with depression. For a long time, I had felt helpless about life and came to a point where I cried every day and often wished I could find a way to end my life quickly. A lot of people suffer quietly from depression. Today I want to help you to be able to identify the signs of depression and give you ideas about helping such people out with their pain and struggles.”
Korlane’s willingness to share such a personal side of her life captivated the audience, and when she finished, a few class members stood up to hug her while others wiped tears from their eyes. One student in particular sat motionless, immersed in her own private thoughts, large tears trickling down her cheeks.
Korlane came over to me and quietly asked, “Did I say something wrong that made her cry?”
“No, you didn’t say anything wrong, Korlane.” I patted her on the back. “Your speech may have just reminded her of some tough memories or something. Don’t worry; I’ll take care of it. You did a very good job. I’m proud of you.”
“Thanks.” She grabbed her backpack and began to walk out of class, glancing back at the other student, worry in her eyes.
I made my way over to the tearful and distressed young woman. I knelt down in front of her and said I would listen if she needed to talk. She looked at me with bloodshot, glassy eyes and began telling me a story that left me speechless. “I came to class today,” her voice filled with a rush of emotion, “only to tell you good-bye.”
I spoke softly. “Are you going somewhere? Has something happened?”
“No, Mr. D., I came here to say good-bye for good. I wrote you this note.” She took it from her bag and slid it across the desk to me. She then reached back into the bag and started to speak again. “I was also going to swallow these pills in the bathroom after class,” she whispered as she handed me the bottle, weeping a river of tears. “I thought I was alone with all of these feelings of despair that were tearing up my heart. I thought it was just me, alone with this craziness in my mind.” She paused to calm her tears, but to no avail. “I don’t want to die. I want to feel better.”
I reached out to hold her hand, and she rested her head on my arm and let her pain pour out in deep sobs, gushing tears, and what seemed to be sighs of relief releasing the secret that was killing her.
Two days later, Korlane showed up at my office looking a little down. “What’s up? I asked.
“Oh, I feel stupid. Since my speech the other day a few people have started to sort of treat me different, like something is wrong with me. On top of that, I just cannot stop thinking about that girl who was crying after class. What kind of speech makes someone cry like that? I probably should have talked about how to bake cookies or something.”
“Hmm.” I leaned toward her to make sure I got her attention. “I have something I was told to give you. I think it might make you feel better.” I pulled an envelope from my desk, handed it to her, and leaned back in my chair. “Read this before you say anything else.”
Korlane looked at me with wide eyes. She slowly opened the letter and unfolded it with care. As her eyes moved over each line of the letter, I could see overwhelming emotions rush through her cheeks and tears begin to well in her eyes. She whispered the question rolling through her mind. “I did this?”
“Yes. you helped save this girl’s life. She wanted to say thank you to you but didn’t know how before she left for home. So I encouraged her to write you a note and tell you how she felt. This is what she wrote.” I pointed to the letter in her hands.
“She said she wants me to call her so we can talk,” Korlane said.” What do I say to her?”
“Say what comes from your heart, Korlane. Your willingness to share the story about your depression gave her hope. She didn’t feel alone anymore. Speak from your heart, and I’m sure whatever you say will be just fine.”
“I guess I could do that,” she said with a bit of both timidity and hope in her voice.
“Remember when I told the class that even your smallest words can have great power? We may not think what we are saying makes a difference, but we can never know that. That’s why we need to measure all our words with care, especially since we now realize that seeds of hope can be planted even in a speech class.” Korlane smiled at me, held the letter to her chest, and told me she needed to make a phone call. In that moment, my heart was full to overflowing, uplifted with a new sense of faith, hope, and love.
This event reaffirmed my belief that all of our actions and words, whether small or large in scope, are sacred, potent, and chock-full of potential. Indeed, if faith is what we hope for, then the unexpected gift of hope shared that day in my classroom was nothing less than a testament to the miraculous and mysterious power of God at work. I am humbly reminded that even my small and unwitting encouragement of a college student who was apprehensive about speaking could be a part of God’s healing hand.
Korlane’s message is God’s enduring proclamation to us all: We are never alone.
Matthew Nelson Drumheller
excerpted from A Cup of Comfort Big Book of Prayer, pp. 365-371