My neighbour, Barb, and I walk every Saturday morning. It is not a long walk, but it is always “significant”. There is a word / concept that we focus on during our walk and begin on one end of the spectrum with it and explore it until we are on the other side. Yesterday, our topic was the difference between success and significance.
I found it very easy to wrap my head around this word when I began to think about what it would look like to be insignificant. This concept was easy to explore as just the previous day I overheard a couple of my students talking about their childhoods. Their conversation was so sad that I became quickly overwhelmed with emotion. Both young men had been abused and neglected by their parents. What had happened to them, when they were at a time in their lives when their families should have been supporting their development of self-worth, traumatized them into believing they were not significant in this world. Consequently, their lives had been spent looking for significance – but in the wrong way.
At school, both boys demonstrated they were, in fact, very significant. Their thinking was deep – their understanding of issues was deep – their contributions were deep. They were far, far, far away from being “in”significant. I remarked to both of them how impressed I had been with their thinking and that they were very wise for their years. I had no idea what power this one little comment would be. One young man responded, “That is the first time in my life I have ever had anyone tell me that. If I had had encouragement as a kid – someone to tell me that I was smart – someone to tell me I was worthwhile, I would not have had so many problems in my life. I have never thought I was smart. I have always felt insignificant.” As a teacher, I now expect great things from these young people – and I fully expect them to rise to the occasion.
Another young lady in my class struggled with her life. She did not have an easy childhood either. Her role models were more impressed with a bottle of booze than they were with her. Again, did she feel significant in her life? Throughout the year while attending school, however, she found her value. It was not an easy thing to find as it was almost like having to cut through impenetrable layers of insults her parents had wrapped her in. I wouldn’t imagine her parents set out to make her feel insignificant – but it would seem that insignificance breeds insignificance – it is a culture. Over the course of the school year, this young woman was made aware of her contributions to her own life, her son’s life, and her school life. She gave more of herself to the school community and the community responded. She became a leader. She became significant. She was invited to be the valedictorian.
What are we to learn from this? As a teacher, I feel like I can finally put a name to what I do in the classroom; I help people to see their own self-worth — to see that they are significant. I help people to see they have value.
Where do we first begin to realize our own worth? How significant are we to ourselves, our partners, our families, our county, our planet? When we can find our place in each of these levels – will we be more likely to feel a greater sense of empowerment? If every person in the world rose to significance – maybe the world would be a better place to live. Maybe government would be less corrupt, maybe the environment would be less stressed, maybe individuals would suffer from good mental health?
One thing I do know, however, is that one gets what one gives. Those young men and that young woman made a difference in my life. When they began to realize their own significance, it became more clear to me what my role was as a teacher – and that I too, am significant.