41: Yes, the Little Things Count

41: Yes, the Little Things Count

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

Yes, the Little Things Count

A complete stranger has the capacity to alter the life of another irrevocably. This domino effect has the capacity to change the course of an entire world.

~J.D. Stroube

I had been teaching at the Southfield Christian School in suburban Detroit for three years when I had a particularly talented class assigned to me. The students included a little girl named Mary Kay who spent only one year at our school, the year that I had her in my third grade class.

Her father was Billy Kim, a famous evangelist, the South Korean version of Billy Graham. He had brought his family to the United States for a year of speaking, fundraising and ministry.

Mary Kay spoke beautiful English, and had a radiant smile and gracious demeanor. She had tremendous respect for authority and learning.

One day, the class was being irritating the way that eight-year-olds can be. That day, I was wishing I had twenty more students just like Mary Kay.

I had gotten the students quiet and together for their next segment of study. As we turned toward Social Studies, I asked Mary Kay to read a section of our book out loud. I was surprised when, despite the beautiful, flowing English she spoke, she read haltingly, stumbling over certain words and mispronouncing others completely. I hadn’t meant to put her in that position. Her spoken English was so wonderful that I didn’t realize her ability to read it was not equally good.

Immediately, the kids in the class began to laugh at her. One, who I’ll call Johnny, said, “What a dummy. She can’t even read from a third grade book.” Well, that was not okay. My heart went out to that little girl.

I said to Mary Kay, “Why don’t you go and write some words in Korean on the board for everyone?” I also had Johnny, her critic, come to the board to experience Mary Kay’s language himself and perhaps learn a lesson.

Mary Kay’s eyes suddenly brightened, her tears drying as she walked with a smile to the board, brimming with newfound confidence and security.

The other children watched as she wrote word after word along with her name in the very distinctive symbols of the Korean alphabet. The teasers quit teasing and watched with a bit of awe, not pity. Then one of the students said, “Write my name, Mary Kay.” And she did. Then another. And another… and another… and another. Soon, the whole class had their names on the board, and Mary Kay was a hero, not the little foreign girl who couldn’t read. Mary Kay could do something the others could not. She went from feeling inadequate to feeling special.

That happened back in the 1970s, back when I was a new teacher. Fast-forward to several years ago, when I was visiting my sister in suburban Detroit, not far from the school where I taught Mary Kay. Coincidentally, her father was going to be speaking one evening at the church connected to that same school.

I was planning to have dinner with a friend in the area, so I asked her if she would join me for this special meeting with Reverend Kim, and she agreed to go. After he spoke, I joined the press of people trying to talk to him. I wanted to let him know that his daughter’s third grade teacher was still alive and well!

Of course, Reverend Kim had many people to see and was accompanied by some of his associates and assistants to help him manage the crowd and attention. However, I was soon able to get close enough to touch his arm and say, “Reverend Kim, I just wanted to take a moment and re-introduce myself. I’m Jackie Sinclair, formerly Miss Sanders, and I was Mary Kay’s third grade teacher when your family was living in the area.”

All of a sudden, his eyes got big, and he said to me, “My daughter has been looking for you for forty years!” He pulled out his phone and said to me, “Just a minute. I need to call her.” He quickly dialed the number, but she didn’t answer so he left a message.

He looked at me kindly and commented, “Miss Sanders, she will call you! She so wants to speak with you.”

I left the auditorium and returned to my sister’s home. Not long afterward, the phone rang. It was Mary Kay Park, now a grown woman and a professor at Biola University in Southern California. What a wonderful treat to be speaking with little Mary Kay, all grown up.

She told me about a YouTube video she had made describing how her life as a little Korean girl had been changed because of her time in my class. The video had been commissioned by the Asian/ American Pacific Islander Initiative 2011, a White House story project, and thousands had seen it. The majority of her story was about that day in my class! Mary Kay had gone on to Harvard, earned a Ph.D., taught at the university, and continued to impact lives for decades to follow. She became an advocate for others who might face what she faced. And she wanted me to know.

Scores of influential people, myriad experiences and lots of hard work contributed to Mary Kay’s success. But I was reminded of this: One action matters. It’s like a domino that starts a chain reaction. The rest of the pieces will fall as long as someone knocks over the first one. And teachers are so often those who start those reactions. I’m glad I had that moment and actually heard about the outcome. Knock a domino over, and you just might get your moment, too.

~Jackie Sanders Sinclair

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