A large red, white, and blue shuttle bus sits at the Nashville International Airport, its diesel engine idling noisily. The notes on my lap are for the speech I will give later today. Now, rather than preparing for the speech, I watch people scurry about the bus loading area. Every one of them is from somewhere. They all have places to go. Each is unique yet similar, a story waiting to be told.
I am here as part of Governor Lamar Alexander’s Tennessee Homecoming 1986, a series of events at which the stories of Tennesseans are told. Thousands of people have come to Opryland USA, home of American music, for the largest homecoming event of the year. I am proud to be an invited speaker.
Unfortunately, I missed the event’s opening day due to a flight delay. Today, with most folks already at the event, it is just the driver and I on the shuttle bus to Opryland. Pushing a dashboard button, the driver closes the bus’ doors. Shifting from park to drive, she jerks the bus forward.
“Wait, wait,” yells a man rushing toward the bus. “Don’t leave without me.” A tap on the brakes brings the bus to a quick stop. A button push opens its doors. A man—sixtyish, with short grey hair and round glasses—boards the bus. A nod, a smile, he settles into the seat next to mine. With a button-push, then a shift, the 12-mile trip to Opryland begins.
“You here for business?” says the man.
“Yes,” say I. Then without missing a beat, I tell him about my job at the National Conference of State Legislatures, the reason for the trip delay from Denver, my professional trajectory—teacher, counselor, association president, and program director. My mouth running faster than the turning wheels of the bus, I even mention the speech that I am going to give later this morning. He listens intently. Graciously, he inquires about each. When he asks about my speech, I offer up its title—The Public In Education—the major points I intend to make, a joke I will tell, and summarize the conclusion.
Twelve miles covered, Opryland in sight, up the long driveway goes the bus. When we disembark at a covered landing, the man insists that I disembark first. My luggage, he insists on helping me carry. On the landing he shakes my hand and gives me a business card. I shove his into the right pocket of my suit pants then give him mine. He holds it between the index and thumbs of both his hands. Gives my card a good long look. Then looking me square in the eyes, he says, “Mark, you’ll give a fine speech.” I give him a smug “of-course-I-will” nod, turn, and head to the assigned conference room where a podium and 125 people await me.
Speech done, applause received, hands shaken, and time to spare before returning to the airport, I go to Grand Auditorium II where the featured keynote is about to begin. As I walk in, Governor Alexander is finishing a story about Minnie Pearl and her lifetime of service to the people of Tennessee. When he presents Minnie with a plaque, 3,104 people stand as one for a rousing ovation.
Presentation complete, Governor Alexander begins introducing the keynote speaker. As he does, I settle into a back row seat. I can only hear some of what he says—Henning, Tennessee, Coast Guard, interviews of Miles Davis and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and author of Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. After which he says, “Please give a big Tennessee Homecoming welcome to Alex Haley.”
Much to my surprise the man from the shuttle bus steps up to the podium. As he does, my hand goes into my pants pocket, hurriedly seeking the business card I received a few hours ago. Holding it between the index fingers and thumbs of both my hands, I give it the good long look—Alex Haley, Writer—that it deserved when I received it.
In a rich voice, with a steady cadence, Haley recounts his life. Telling stories about people, places, and lessons learned. After one story, he says, “Either you deal with what is the reality, or you can be sure that the reality is going to deal with you.”
As Haley continues talking about dealing with reality, he mentions that family is the link to our past and bridge to our future. I consider the reality of the man I met on the bus. How he reached out to me. The familial way he inquired about my reality. How he listened intently, despite my rambling response, after asking about my speech. His intentionality made me feel like my speech mattered—my reality mattered. Yet, when I did not ask about him, he seemed not to take offense. Then at our destination, he halved my load as we left the bus and ever so respectfully received my business card even though I snubbed his.
Later, I am thunderstruck when Haley says, “Find the good, and praise it.” I think about how, on the bus, I was too self-absorbed to see the distinguished teacher who, through a twist of fate and delayed flight, had stepped in my life. Unbent by great accomplishment and fame, the teacher was approachable, humble, and curious. Even though I was not. He sought to understand my reality, and hear my story, yet I did not reciprocate. These heartfelt acts of praise kicked awake the good that was asleep within me.
The good within me burns brightest when my approachability, listening, and inquiring give praise to the people I encounter and situations I face. My flame of goodness is further fanned by the gold stars, quotes/pictures, and blog posts that I send forth via social media. Each pays homage to teachers I have had, to those whom I have yet to meet, and every person who teaches. The good within me, that Alex Haley travelled a lifetime to ignite, stays bright through my praise of others. Find the good and praise it.
Note: This is the 12th post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.