Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to hear Manny Scott, one of the original Freedom Writers, speak. If you ever have the chance, don’t miss it. He is an extraordinary individual who really embodies the power and resilience of the human spirit. At the end of his speech, he said something that was both so profound and so obvious that I couldn’t decide if I should shout “Amen” or slap myself on my forehead. I know that I will not say this as eloquently as he did, so I am paraphrasing here. He said that, in reaction to his story, people would often say, ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink’. Then one day, someone pointed out, ‘That maybe true, but you can make him thirsty. All you have to do is give him a little salt.’ Manny Scott was honoring the teacher who changed his life by making him thirst for learning. What a powerful thing it is to ignite a passion in someone that makes them thirst to learn. The best teachers and coaches know just how to do this. For that matter, the best parents and bosses do as well. I think it takes just one person in your life to change your whole trajectory. One person who sees all that you can be. One person who sees your gifts not your challenges. One person who knows you have it in you to do the hard work – someone who can see a future you cannot yet even imagine. I have had more than my fair share of these people pass through my life. But it all started 45 years ago when I entered second grade and found out I was smart.
I attended a small Catholic school north of Seattle. Though you might imagine nuns with severe hairstyles, stern looks and inflexible rules, I was taught by nuns who hugged and played guitar. (One even wore Go-Go boots occasionally.) I liked school. It was predictable. Not much of the rest of my life at the time was. My parents had divorced loudly. My mom was struggling to manage entering the workforce and raise four little girls. In the wisdom of Family Court circa 1970, I only saw my dad every other weekend. But I trusted my teachers, so I did not question them when I was moved to a special classroom. They explained, in gentle tones, that I was having trouble reading and needed extra help. Apparently, that was early code for Special Education. I took their tests, packed up my school supplies and moved across the hall. I’m not really sure how my dad found out about this unfortunate turn of events. But he did. When he called to tell me that he was taking me out for lunch alone, I knew something serious was about to happen. He always took me out to lunch when he had something serious to say. I remember sitting across from him in the booth, my legs sticking to the Naugahyde, hoping that the waitress would take her time getting to us. Nothing serious could be said before we ordered. Once the drinks were served, my dad launched in. He was a big man with a big personality who seemed to take over the room. He was very animated and, at first, I thought he was mad at me. Then I realized he was mad at the nuns which was utterly shocking. Surely, it was some kind of a sin to be angry at a nun. Surely, they could not have done something wrong. Then I realized what was going on. He was angry that they had put me in a special classroom. He told me that he had insisted that they do an IQ test (whatever that was) which apparently showed that I was smart. I almost couldn’t understand what he was saying. After all, I wasn’t a very good reader. But here he was telling me that I was smart. That I could read. That I would read well and someday I would go to college. He told me that the nuns had made a mistake which was going to be rectified. I couldn’t wait to find out what rectified meant. I just hoped it didn’t mean that the nuns would be mad at me. He was so sure. And he made me believe in that instance that I was just as smart as everyone else, maybe even smarter. He told me I had to work hard just like everyone else and, if I did, then I could do anything. The next day, I packed my school supplies and walked across the hall. I never looked back. I could not wait to read something, anything, everything.
I cannot imagine what my life would have been like if he had not been in my corner. I did need extra help in school. But I needed a lot less once I believed that I could learn. I was willing to work a lot harder once I knew that there was no ceiling to my potential. It changed everything for me. I earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology and went on to earn a Master’s Degree and a Doctorate. He led me to the water and made me thirsty to learn. We all have the ability to do this. There are people in our lives who need a leg up. They need to see their possibilities through our eyes. Give them a little salt. Trust me. They’ll drink.
I chose this photograph because, as I was photographing an elk herd, this young elk split off from the herd to chase down a couple of elk who were heading toward the highway. Literally, he led them back to the water.
Hey, Come Back!
(1/50 sec., f/6.3, 3200 ISO, 600 mm)