So You Want to Make a Difference?

Anyone who conducts numerous interviews soon discovers a striking pattern from interviewees when asked why they would like to join the company, board of directors, or student club. The answer, unequivocally, is:

“I want to make a difference.”

Not to question the veracity of such statement, “making a difference” has been misused and abused to some extent. In fact, the statement has devolved into a platitude.  I’ll confess that while I was in college I exploited the statement as a mere rhetoric. At that time, I’d never put some serious thought into what it really means to make a difference. It was a fuzzy and inchoate idea that just sounded cool. If you could share my sentiments to some degree, rest assured – you are not alone.

I really wished someone had the courage and inquisitiveness to ask me “why?” This becomes an important qualifying question.   “Why do you, Paul, want to make a difference? What is it so important about making a difference for you? In what way would you like to make a difference? What are you doing now to make your dream a reality?” Now, facing these fundamental assumptions has turned this amorphous idea into something a lot more concrete.

Last week’s sermon at church was about the gift of giving.  The core of giving generously starts with a deep commitment to discover, cultivate, and disseminate your God-given talents. The willingness and ability to share generously will enable you to make a meaningful impact – a difference in one’s lives.

Before ‘talent’ meant skill, it meant money. In fact, it represented the largest unit of money in the Greek currency which translates into around $1.1 million (given that you earn $30,000 a year) in today’s currency.

God didn’t entrust us with a $2 talent or a $5 skill. God has given us gifts abundantly. Yet, if we are to waste and squander this God-given talent, we are not only doing a disservice to God, but we are failing to “make a difference in this world.”

Here’s a story I stumbled upon that perfectly illustrates this point.

Teddy Stallard certainly qualified as “one of the least”: disinterested in school; musty, wrinkled clothes; hair never combed; one of those kids in school with a deadpan face; an expressionless, glassy, unfocused stare. When Miss Thompson spoke to Teddy he always answered in monosyllables. Unattractive, unmotivated, and distant, he was just plain hard to like.

Even though his teacher said she loved all in her class the same, down inside she wasn’t being completely truthful. Whenever she marked Teddy’s papers, she got a certain perverse pleasure out of putting Xs next to the wrong answers, and when she put the Fs at the top of the papers, she always did it with a flair. She should have known better; she had Teddy’s records and she knew more about him than she wanted to admit. The records read:

1st Grade: Teddy shows promise with his work and attitude, but poor home situation. 
2nd Grade: Teddy could do better. Mother is seriously ill. He receives little help at home. 
3rd Grade: Teddy is a good boy but too serious. He is a slow learner. His mother died this year. 
4th Grade: Teddy is very slow, but well behaved. His father shows no interest. 

Christmas came and the boys and girls in Miss Thompson’s class brought her Christmas presents. They piled their presents on her desk and crowded around to watch her open them. Among the presents there was one from Teddy Stallard. She was surprised that he had brought her a gift, but he had.

Teddy’s gift was wrapped in brown paper and was held together with Scotch tape. On the paper were written the simple words, “For Miss Thompson from Teddy.” When she opened Teddy’s present, out fell a gaudy rhinestone. The other boys and girls began to giggle and smirk over Teddy’s gifts, but Miss Thompson at least had enough sense to silence them by immediately putting some of the perfume on her wrist. Holding her wrist up for the other children to smell, she said “Doesn’t it smell lovely?” And the children, taking their cues from the teacher, readily agreed with “oohs” and “aahs.”

At the end of the day, when school was over and the other children had left, Teddy lingered behind. He slowly came over to her desk and said softly, “Miss Thompson…Miss Thompson, you smell just like my mother…and her bracelet looks real pretty on you, too. I’m glad you liked your presents.” When Teddy left, Miss Thompson got down on her knees and asked God to forgive her.

The next day when the children came to school, they were welcomed by a new teacher. Miss Thompson had become a different person. She was no longer just a teacher; she had become an agent of God. She was now a person committed to loving her children and doing things for them that would live on after her. She helped all the children, but especially the slow ones, and especially Teddy Stallard. By the end of that school year, Teddy showed dramatic improvement. He had caught up with most of the students and She didn’t hear from Teddy for a long time. Then one day, she received a note that read:

Dear Miss Thompson:
I wanted you to be the first to know. I will be graduating second in my class.
Love, Teddy Stallard 

Four years later, another note came:

Dear Miss Thompson:
They just told me I will be graduating first in my class. I wanted you to be the first to know. The university has not been easy, but I like it.
Love, Teddy Stallard 

And four years later:

Dear Miss Thompson: 
As of today, I am Theodore Stallard, M.D. How about that? I wanted you to be the first to know I am getting married next month, the 27th to be exact. I want you to come and sit where my mother would sit if she were still alive. You are the only family I have now; Dad died last year. 
Love, Teddy Stallard

Miss Thompson went to that wedding and sat where Teddy’s mother would have sat. She deserved to sit there; she had done something for Teddy that he could never forget.