Written By: Hans Appel
In November, our school brought in West Richland police officer, David Veloz to speak about his time in the military, as part of our Veteran’s Day Assembly. He’s a smart engaging man full of energy and life with a spirit of making a difference. Beyond all of the inspiring takeaways from his presentation to our students, the one that stuck most with me had little to do with his time on the front lines. He told a brief story about a chance encounter with a man who paid for him to ride in first class on a airplane. It was David’s first and only experience riding in first class. This random act of kindness belonged to NBA owner Marc Cuban, on a plane ride home from one of David’s military missions. At the time, he had no idea who Cuban was but enjoyed talking with the outgoing fellow from Texas. Cuban was beyond interested and respectful of David while he sat in his full military uniform. David explained how the billionaire asked him insightful questions, demonstrated significant respect and interest and clearly thought the world of David's service to our country. David’s story about Cuban’s kind words that day struck me in a way that got me thinking….
Character is revealed by what you do when you think no one else is watching. But here’s the thing….often times...someone is watching and we’re just unaware.
We often naively believe that we truly know a celebrity. Like….because we’ve watched them on TV, listened to their song, or follow them on social media….that we somehow are a part of their life. But the truth is, celebrities often reveal only a perfectly scripted look of their world. Rare is the famous being who authentically lets it all hang out. A few years ago, a group of buddies and I drove down to the Lake Tahoe for the American Century Celebrity Golf Tournament. It’s a fabulous way to spend a weekend. There’s opportunity to mingle with sports and television stars as they play in a fun low key tournament. Great food, fun events, all in small little casino town. We all had a blast! We took pictures, got autographs and shook hands with lots a well known people. Some folks were exactly what you might expect and others were completely different. In a few of these moments away from cameras, media, and crowds we were able to get a peak behind the curtain at some of these famous folks. Our observations were proof, that someone is always watching when your famous. We saw athletes throw the football around with fans, hug small children, and visit with regular folk for long periods of time. Several of these rich and famous truly seemed to live up to our expectations. Of course, people watching isn’t limited to celebrities.
Years ago, when I had grandiose dreams of being a professional magician, I found myself in a situation that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I was hired to perform magic at a grand opening at a Walmart in a small town in Oregon. Essentially, I was hired to walk around the store and perform magic up close as new customers shopped, for the first time. (Yes, you guessed it….this was a strange and sometimes awkward encounter). But I had a good time meeting lots of unsuspecting families throughout the store. Just before I was about to finish up for the day a young man pushed an older gentleman’s wheelchair into my path. Naturally, I did a quick bit of magic for the young man. While he seemed to have fun, I noticed that the wheelchair bound fellow, was not reacting. To be honest, he was wearing sunglasses and so I wasn’t really sure what his reactions to my magic were….but he seemed less than enthused. As I turned to move past them, the young man explained that his grandfather was blind and had never been able to see magic before but that he had described a few things to his grandfather from television shows featuring David Copperfield. He explained that they understood that I wouldn’t be able to show him anything but that they appreciate me being at the grand opening. I smiled, took a step to the side and mentally planned to pack up, say goodbye to the manager, and drive home. I was certainly under no obligation or expectation to perform magic for a vision impaired man. Plus, I had another gig that evening and needed to leave immediately to be ready in time for the next event. But then I stopped, whipped around with idea in mind, and said very casually “can I try just one thing.” I proceeded to do a simple trick with two sponge balls in the man’s hands. The sponge balls disappeared, multiplied, and jumped around while his grandson provided commentary of what was happening. He smiled, laughed, and genuinely had a few beautiful moments of wonder. And while he couldn’t see anything, he SAW EVERYTHING. He certainly got to feel both in his hands and heart that magic was happening. The entire interaction lasted maybe 3 minutes. I said my goodbyes, headed back to the front manager’s office and proceeded to pack up. Just before I left, a teary-eyed mom, stopped me on the way out and informed me “that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” In talking with her, she had apparently been standing at the far end of the aisle watching me perform magic for this visually impaired man. She was moved to tears, knowing that I included the older gentleman into my world of wonder. Now, if I’m being REAL with myself, at 22 years old, Character was the last thing on my mind! I wasn't trying to impress anyone or make some equal rights statement. Being a highly competitive, former athlete who was presented with a challenge, I simply wanted to figure out a way to entertain the man. It certainly wasn’t any higher noble purpose. I was completely unaware of the emotionally moved mom, but she was watching.
Truthfully, someone is almost always watching. On a few recent occasions, I’ve had the pleasure of being the one witnessing when true Character is revealed. In January, this year, we brought in Houston Kraft to do an assembly on Kindness followed by a leadership workshop. The assembly was to last an hour in the gym, then we’d usher about 100 leadership students into the Commons to work with Houston on some more in depth Character development for another hour or so. The assembly was outstanding! Afterwards, we began sending students back to class and/or grabbing leadership students to head into the commons. We probably hadn’t allowed enough time in transition but we knew we could make it work. As the gym cleared out, a handful of adults began to escort Houston to the next location when we noticed a student was crying off in the corner. Now mind you, there were about 5-6 educators there. Guess who was the first person to make contact with the tearful teenager? Houston. He ended up sitting on the floor with her for the next 20 minutes listening, validating, and being present for her. Meanwhile, adults were getting antsy as 100 leadership students were ready to explode with anticipation of Houston’s arrival, down the hallway. As he kindly helped the student regain emotional control and finally made his way down to the leadership group, it struck me...that this guy really believes what he’s talking about. He has true conviction to “make kindness normal.” And even more importantly he acts with high character even when it’s not convenient. It would have been nice to have his technology equipment set up for the following leadership workshop. He certainly felt all the adult energy rise with each passing moment that he wasn’t on his way to the next activity. But Houston reinforced with me a valuable lesson that day, people are more important than agendas. People are more valuable than plans and timelines. In that moment, that student needed Houston and he was there for her. There’s something magical about witnessing a Character Strong moment.
A few months later, I found myself at an educator conference presenting and hanging out with John Norlin (Character Strong). Near the end of the day, I was helping him pack up….the vendor area was pretty empty. All of the educators had left the area and were onto the evening’s events. A custodian stopped by, clearly drawn in by the bright colorful images at the Character Strong booth. He asked John a simple question as he began cleaning up near us. Without missing a beat, John began to share about Character Strong, his mission, and even his WHY. We probably stood there another 10 minutes visiting with this nice fellow as he went about his job. Now make no mistake, there was NOTHING in it for John to engage this man. He was neither educator, nor potential customer of a school culture program. But John treated him with the utmost interest and respect as he openly shared with this man. Afterwards, I mentioned to John how I noticed this interaction and thought it was pretty cool that he put himself out there with someone who had no means or interest in benefiting John. His response was a simple “that’s just how I was raised.”
How ARE we “raising” our students? How are we TEACHING them Character? Who’s observing our Character? And what might they notice? Are you willing to engage someone who can’t possibly benefit you? Are you capable of putting your agenda aside for someone else in need? Who are you...when you think no one’s paying attention?
Award Winning Culture is only REAL, when Character exists in the absence of observation.
Maybe it's best to imagine that someone’s always watching. Years removed from my magic encounter with the visually impaired man, I recognize that despite his loss of sight he too was watching that day in Walmart.
I’d bet our students and co-workers are watching, even when we don’t realize their presence. I wonder what they’d say about me……
Enterprise Middle School received the 2018 ASCD Whole Child Award in Washington, for its award winning culture and the 2018 Global "Class Act Award" for Kindness. By creating a culture of kindness, service, and empathy we've taken student leadership to an epic level.