Her name was “Joni.” She was a student in my dorm at the Texas School for the Deaf (TSD), a household of about 15 girls. They came from a myriad of backgrounds: foster homes, broken homes, intact homes, no homes. Some were loving; some were not.
“My girls” were fun, smart, loving, beautiful, curious, and eager. I loved them. I was ready to impart my 23-year old wisdom on fashion, boys, education, life, cooking, philosophy, homework, and a host of other topics. Just go ahead and ask me, right? I was so wrong.
It happened during the ’83-’84 school year. I had become a confidant to many of the girls and one wanted “to talk about something.” The minute she broached the subject, I signed to her that I needed to tell her mom. She begged me to “Please, forget it, just forget it,” but under Texas Code, I was bound to tattle. Crap.
She was furious. She felt betrayed and I couldn't blame her. I had destroyed her trust - something she didn’t give easily. I thought I’d ruined her ability to confide in people, with me at the top of the list. I had done a bait and switch on a beautiful, articulate young woman who loved me and confided in me. It ate at me for years.
I left TSD at the end of that school year and went on to work in Corporate America while getting my degree. I kept a low profile but three years later, I got a call from the security desk at my office building. “Someone is here to see you. We don’t know her name but she is deaf.” I rushed downstairs.
It was Joni. I don't know how she found me. She was the last person I ever expected it to be and one of the people I most wanted it to be.
We snuck into a conference room and summarized the last three years in about fifteen minutes. Then, she got serious. She signed, “I just came here to tell you one thing.” Uh-oh, here it comes…
I braced myself for the vitriol I deserved about the damage I had caused and the scars I had left in her heart and on her life. “Fine,” I thought, “I earned it.” But I got none of that. Instead, with the grace and compassion of an angel, she signed something that changed me forever: “I just wanted to let you know that I have always looked up to you.”
I was nonplussed. It was difficult for me to breathe, much less speak. Somehow, in the midst of picking up all the shattered pieces of our relationship, this mature, loving, kind, smart, witty, beautiful young woman was my teacher, my mentor, and my philosopher. She did not exonerate me from nor excoriate me for what happened years earlier. Instead, I received an invaluable gift. Joni taught me this:
We never really know whose life we affect, but someone is always watching. We do not walk in this world independent of others. Our actions are connectors and if there were ever a case for believing in each of us having a greater purpose, Joni confirmed it. Our words and actions are teachers, the stepping-stones we leave imprinted on the world as a pathway for others. Most of the time, we don’t know who is taking notes but someone, somewhere is.
I have gone on to do countless leadership, body language, team building, personality and strategic planning sessions and workshops for all-sized companies. I have used the life lesson Joni taught me in most of them. More people have been affected by that story than I can count. In fact, it is a segment in my Gladiator Within™ workshop because it has been so powerful.
Life is full of ironies. I went to the Texas School for the Deaf as a young, naïve, arrogant adult intent on doing good and “teaching” others; but, I am the one who learned about life and purpose from the goodness and wisdom of a student.
And, just like Joni did for me, it is time for me to tell her: "I just wanted to let you know that I have always looked up to you.”
Thank you, Joni. You're a Gladiator. \|m/