We've all heard that you don't always know how your actions (or inactions) affect others. A simple smile or kind word can mean all the world to someone. I got one of those smiles when I was a freshman in high school. We won't discuss how many years ago that was, but I still remember it to this day.
The school counselor, who helped us pick our classes, thought I needed to be in speech. I asked for something else, but she insisted. It was only for half a semester, but for an introvert like me (at the time), it was nothing short of torture to know I would have to get up front of the class and give a speech. That part was bad enough, but there were a lot of senior football players in there. And they all sat up front. Talk about intimidation! Anyway, the day of my first speech arrived. I tried to play sick but Mama didn't buy it. I felt as though I was headed to the gallows when I trudged into class that day.
The speech had to be five agonizing minutes long. I worked on it for days. When my turn came, my heart pounded so hard, I thought it would burst from the strain. I could barely breathe let alone speak. My hands shook. My knees wobbled. Every beat of my heart was this large, dark spot in front of my eyes. Head down, I stood behind the podium and tried to focus. We could have our speech in front of us but could not read it verbatim. I laid the papers down and tried to swallow, but my mouth was so dry I thought I would choke. The teacher cleared her throat, indicating it was time to start. Make eye contact was one the rules of class. The thought of making eye contact with any of those seniors in the front row was paralyzing. Scared out of my wits, I forced myself to look at the person directly in front of me.
His name was Bill Potts. The epitome of tall, dark and handsome to my fifteen-year-old eyes, he did something I'll never forget. He smiled and gave a slight nod of his head. It wasn't the flirty kind meant to tease or rattle me, it was the hey-you-got-this kind that even my young terrified brain could interpret. This big, brawny, handsome football player silently said you can do this. That one small gesture gave me the encouragement I needed to waddle through that stupid speech. In the grand scheme of things, it was nothing, really, and yet, it was everything, too.
To this day, I cannot tell you what that speech was about. I can tell you that a single smile from a young man in the front row gave me that little boost I needed to get through the moment. Each speech that followed got easier to complete. His silent encouragement never failed me. We never spoke. Not even in class or in the hallways. Yet there was this connection when it came time for speeches. It was obvious to anyone with eyes how scared I was up there, but he was the only one who seemed to understand and tried to make it better, or maybe he was just being nice. Or maybe I read something into it that wasn't really there. Whatever the reason, his smile got me through that class.
I don't how it happened, but I ended up with one of his senior pictures and still have it. Over the years, I have given countless speeches before large and small crowds. Whenever I felt those first twinges of nervousness, I would simply picture Bill sitting there in the front row with that light nod and a smile, and I was good to go. We moved after my freshman year and I never saw him again. He never knew how much his smile meant to me, and I seriously doubt he even remembers doing it.
But I do.
That one act of kindness had a profound impact on me. As Gibbs would say, "you don't waste good." It's many years too late, but thank you, Bill. Whether it was intentional or coincidental, you made a difference in my life, and I am profoundly grateful.