Staying in the Lines
One of my earliest childhood memories comes from a kindergarten classroom in a grade school on Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. We were living there short-term while my dad did his initial training as a flight surgeon. I was 6 years old.
I don’t remember my teacher’s name, only that she had given me one of my first school assignments. She handed out one of those mimeographed pictures, this one a clutch of balloons. ’Sounds like a simple assignment now, but at 6, hey, I’d just mastered tying my shoes.
I was hunkered down in concentration coloring those balloons, and the teacher walks by and makes a comment about how well I can stay in the lines. And I believed her. You believe what you’re told when you’re a kid, whether you’re told you’re stupid or smart, pretty or ugly. That inner voice hasn’t developed enough yet to talk back to you and say it ain’t so. So, as a kindergartener, I thought, wow, I’m good at something. I was elated.
In retrospect, it was a defining moment. I connected with a sense of self-worth. Oh sure, I didn’t have any conceptual awareness of it, but I felt, oh man what was it? Energy? Motivation? Ambition? It was all of the above.
Think of the implications for a kid in today’s world. With regular encouragement and praise, just a few words and a minute of time, a person might be able to overcome some physical or psychological hurdle to success. And what if that achievement ultimately means the solution to a life-threatening disease, computer glitch or engineering malfunction? What might be becomes what is, and the world is a better place for it. Think of it: Where would Michael Phelps be if he hadn’t had his devoted mom and coach, caring people who saw his gift and cheered him on to develop and use it?
Praise potentiates creativity and ambition. With guidance, it can foster excellence, and where would the world be without those who rise above mediocrity? Success blooms in the light of unsolicited, uncensored praise from someone who cares enough to offer it. So I’ve tried always to seize the opportunity to offer praise—whether it’s my neighbor boy who sells candy and popcorn for his Boy Scout troop like nobody’s business or a colleague working on another college degree.
Given the state of the world, I don’t think I can afford to ignore any ability, gift or talent, however homely and humble it may appear to be, especially in young people. I’m given to praise them for a task done well, even if it’s just staying in the lines.