From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

A Few Kind Words

No one rises to low expectations.

Les Brown

What would it take to reach him? His name was Gary. He was sixteen years old. He had already had several brushes with the law and had done time in several juvenile correctional facilities. Now, he sat in my classroom bored and defiant. What would it take?

He had linked up with another young man in the class who had a background that was strikingly similar to his background. His name was Lee. Lee, like Gary, had committed some offenses and done some time. Both of them had brilliant minds. They both had little respect for authority. Gary and Lee would do whatever they felt they were grown enough to do. Sometimes they would just sit in the back of the room and play around on Lee’s laptop, composing beats and making up raps. At other times, they would hold conversations and freely use profane language. Some days, they would get up and walk out of class without permission, and then there were those days when the two of them would not bother to come to class at all. I am ashamed to say that I was grateful for those days. Sometimes, the battlefield called the inner-city classroom can be such a draining place that you are thankful to receive a moment of peace, no matter how it comes to you. I knew I had a job to do, but I wondered what it would take.

When the time came to distribute the first progress report of the year, I did so with a little trepidation. I knew that there would be a confrontation because of what I had written on Gary’s report in the teacher’s comment section. I started off by saying that Gary was very bright. I then went on to say that he could be rude and disrespectful. I even commented on his open use of profanity in the classroom. I approached him, handed him his report and went on to distribute the rest of the reports to his classmates. I watched out of the corner of my eye as he read his report. I noticed no significant change in his facial expression, so I relaxed just a little bit. As I headed for my desk, Gary called to me. I went toward him determined to stand my ground.

“Did you write this?”

“Yes, I did.”

“What do you mean, I’m disrespectful?”

“I mean what I say.”

“I don’t disrespect you.”

“You disrespect me every day. You talk over me while I’m trying to teach class. You . . .”

“I don’t disrespect you.”

“Okay, Gary. But I believe you do.”

I walked to the front of the room and attempted to begin to teach class. As I spoke, Gary made sure he was speaking. He matched me word for word, sentence for sentence. It got so bad that I had to stop what I was doing to address him. I asked him to leave, and he refused. The situation escalated to the point where the principal had to come and intervene. I went home from school that day with the question looming larger than it ever had before. What would it take?

As I rode to school the next day, I hoped that I would not have to see Gary at all. I was at a loss. I did not know what to do. I felt as though I would never reach him. Though I had pondered the question over and over again, I still did not know what it would take. When I pulled up in front of the school, the very first person that I saw was Gary. I lifted my eyes toward heaven, sighed and asked, “What now?”

A still, small voice responded, “Apologize.”

My reaction was, “Apologize? I didn’t do anything to him!”

Once again, the still, small voice responded, gently urging me to apologize. I was determined not to apologize but the still, small voice began to give me some much-needed instruction.

“Apologize. He has no one in his life speaking positive things to him. He only gets to hear the negative. He needs someone to speak life to him. Apologize, and speak life.”

It was quite a humbling moment, a moment of epiphany, the moment when I finally knew what it would take. It was so simple, yet so profound. All it would take was a kind word.

At first, I didn’t know what I had to apologize for, but as I thought about it, it became clear: disrespect. I was to apologize for disrespecting him. Though I had started his progress report off with the comments concerning how bright he was, that point never came up in our conversation. Only the negative came up, not the positive. I swallowed my pride and approached the bench where he was sitting munching on a snack cake and drinking a juice.


“Yeah,” he said as he looked up.

“I just wanted to apologize. If you feel I disrespected you, that was never my intention. It’s just that you have so much going for you. You are so bright and talented, I would be remiss if I allowed you to sit around and not reach your full potential. Disrespect was never my intent. I am sorry.”

He looked at me, and I saw something in his eyes I had never seen before: hope. I walked away from him sensing I had said and done the right thing.

When it came time for me to teach his class, I walked in the classroom and was met by a brand-new Gary. The transformation in him was almost startling. He was attentive. He participated in the class. He asked questions. He answered questions. From that day on, he continued to learn, grow and develop. Our relationship developed to the point where we were able to talk about a lot of things. He came to me often for guidance and direction.

Gary is no longer at our school. He had to leave when his father’s military unit was transferred to another state. It happened suddenly—so suddenly that I didn’t get to say good-bye. I was hurt when I heard he had left us, but I know he didn’t leave us without having received what he needed.

What would it take to reach him? His name was Gary. He was sixteen years old. He had already had several brushes with the law and had done time in several juvenile correctional facilities. Now, he had sat in my classroom bored and defiant. What would it take? All that it took was a few kind words.

Nancy Gilliam

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners