Some years ago, I became high school principal in a little town near Wheatland, Wyo.
When I arrived at the school, I found it was torn with strife and difficulties. It was the first place I had lived where everyone, including the parents and students, were saying all the good students had gone.What a predicament! I knew that something must be done to help the students realize that they, too, were of value and could contribute to the school, community and society. Just what to do was the real question. How do you help someone believe they are worthy of recognition, when all their life they have been told, either verbally or non-verbally, they are worthless?
As the first day of school arrived and I met the students in the high school gym, I soon learned they were great people who believed they were worthless. I observed they, like most people, wanted to do the right thing, wanted to be liked, wanted to be respected, wanted to be loved; but like most of us, did not know how.
I felt an urgent need to help them overcome the negative attitude they held of themselves, and I began to meet with the students in what lovingly became known by them as "positive-mental-attitude seminars." Every other week I would call the students together to discuss what they could do to help make themselves successful in school and the world outside the school environment.
To these students, I emphasized that the school environment was a place for them to test and refine interactive techniques that they could use throughout their lives.
Often, my examples were personal ones which enabled the students to see that no matter who they were, or where they came from, or what had happened to them earlier, they could start, from this moment, to develop and practice the skills necessary to become successful. Success is a learned behavior. Following one of the seminars I had given to the students, as I was standing in the hallway, I observed one of the senior students applying one of the ideas I had taught. As this 6-foot-2-inch, 185-pound, all-state football player moved down the hall interacting with other students, he approached where I was standing.
I stepped into his pathway and asked if I could see him for a moment. We stepped next to the wall, and I put my hand up around his neck to pull his head close to mine so I could speak to him without everyone hearing what was being said.
"Troy," I whispered, "I want you to know I am very proud of you!"
He pulled back, and with astonishment, said, "What did I do?"
I said, "Troy, didn't you see what you did when you came out of the classroom?"
He said, "No, what did I do?"
I could not believe this response, but after observing his seriousness, I concluded students do not recognize the commendable things they do. To them, nothing is good enough to be praiseworthy.
I replied, "Remember earlier this week when I was telling you some things which successful people do?"
After his acknowledgment, I said: "Troy, when you came out of the classroom, I watched you do some of those very things. It made me proud to see you act so mature! You are assimilating habits that will make you successful in your life. Troy, what you did are the things that successful people do! I'm very proud of you, Troy!"
I gave him a little hug and said: "Thanks. You're the type of student I'm proud to have in my school!"
He pulled back a little and looked down into my eyes. I saw two big tears running down his cheek and knew deep inside this tough football player was a tender-hearted friend. I could see what I had said to him had penetrated the very depths of his emotions, and he valued both the words and my sincerity.
As I watched him walk to the restroom with his head bowed and hands covering his eyes, I knew he would never quite be the same person he had been a few minutes ago.
Young people are experts at telling when your compliment is sincere. Sincere compliments touch them in the heart because they come from the heart. Heart-to-heart messages are lasting ones, and the only way you can make an all-state football player cry. All-state players can bear physical pain without blinking an eye, but a touch of the heart is overpowering.
Saying "I love you," "I'm proud of you," and "I accept you as you are!" while truly meaning it not only makes football players cry, but others too. The father who does not find the occasion to hug his sons and daughters and tell them "I love you," or "I'm proud of you," (while truly meaning it) has not understood his role as a father.