small words

Clark Gaither

Transformed thinking changes you in profound ways. I used to look at defeat as a loss, as the end. Defeat to me was a sign post saying STOP. Mistakes I made reinforced the self-generated notion that I wasn’t good enough. I don’t think that way anymore because I learned something valuable one day that changed everything.

When I was nine years old I entered a speech contest put on by the Kiwanis Club. I don’t remember the topic but I remember thinking I had written a great one. I practiced and practiced it over and over again. I felt confident that this was a five minute barn-burner everyone would enjoy.

When the night came to deliver the speech I became very nervous looking at that room full of somber adults. It wasn’t at all the way I had pictured it in my head. My name was called and I could feel a lump form in my throat. Half way through my speech I lost my place, stumbled over a word and froze.

I looked over across the room at my mom for support. She turned away and stared down at her empty plate. It was a disaster. I sat down, unable to finish my speech. Nothing was said in car on the way back home. There were no words of criticism or offerings of support. I remember feeling ashamed and I cried myself to sleep that night.

When I was about twelve and in the sixth grade my parents went to see my grade school principle. I had starting having some trouble with my grades. I wasn’t interested in school anymore. Well, except for Science and Geometry which the teacher made very interesting for me. His name was Mr. Clampett and he always encouraged me to do better.

All I wanted to do was sit at my desk and dream of far away places. I loved to daydream. I dreamed about being a doctor like Ben Casey on TV. My principle, Mr. Caldwell, told my parents point blank that they probably expected too much from me, that I should probably be a painting contractor like my dad. I was sitting right there, listening.

After that, my grades did not improve. Go figure.

I went off to college right after high school because that was what everyone else was doing and it was what my parents wanted me to do. I don’t believe it was ever something I truly wanted to do. I quickly discovered that college was not for me. I knew this to be true because I had also managed to flunk out. It was another disaster. Maybe Mr. Caldwell was right?

I quit college and started my own painting and wall papering company. It lasted one year. A big job I was working on filed for bankruptcy and I was paid for less than half the work I had done. I had failed at painting and decorating. Maybe Mr. Caldwell was wrong? I couldn’t get even make that work. I had to find other work, fast.

It so happened I was working part time at a local Radio Shack out of a love for electronics when the store manager decided to leave for other work, I asked the District Manager if I could run the store. He took a chance on me. I became the youngest store manager for Radio Shack in the country at the age of 19.

My performance that first year was not great. But, I gained some experience and I was able to capitalize on that the next year. My performance improved. Sales climbed. I was given a larger store to run. I did well with that one and was winning sales contests. Later, I was given the opportunity to open a brand new store in Hickory, NC.

I did well with that store too. Confidence in my abilities had risen along with my rise within the company. So much so that I began to entertain the thoughts of doing something more, something different. I began to daydream the dreams I once had in grade school. But was I good enough? I was afraid.

I must have been mulling this over one night at the store. One of my regular customers, a Mr. Larry Kahill who sold paper products, dropped by and said I looked perplexed. I told him of my dilemma. I was doing well with Radio Shack but I was thinking of going back to college and possibly on to medical school if my grades were good enough.  I told him about my disastrous first year of college.

He asked me about my time with Radio Shack and the successes I had had with the company. After I had given him the run down that is when he said it. That is when this relative stranger would say something to me that would ultimately change the rest of my life.

He looked at me thoughtfully, smiled and said, “Clark, you can do what ever you make up your mind to do.” He turned on his heel and left the store leaving me blinking. It was a Transformative moment for me.

One week later I enrolled in summer school at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, NC. I did a four year program in three years ending with a 3.49 GPA. While I was there, I joined Toastmasters International. I entered the North Carolina State Serious Speaking Championship contest in 1981. One night in Charlotte I delivered a speech on Our Greatest Natural Resource – People. I went prepared.

As I stood behind the podium giving that speech I imagined every woman I saw in the room was my mother because she couldn’t be there. At the end of it I brought 500 people to their feet for a standing O and won the contest

I went on to graduate school and earned a Master Degree in Biology. I went from there to medical school at ECU and later became a physician. I had some personal problems that I had to overcome along the way but I was determined, and determination carried the day.

One year after I had graduated from medical I went back home to my hometown to visit a friend whose father had died. We were out in his front yard when I noticed his next door neighbor shuffling around in his front yard with a cane in his hand. It was my old grade school principle Mr. Caldwell. I went over to him and introduced myself. His face lit up, or at least half of it did. He had suffered a stroke and still carried some of the sequelae. His speech was slurred but still understandable.

He asked me how I was and what I was doing. I gave him the whole story. When I was finished he smiled and said that he was proud of me and that he always knew I would make it big. Funny, I must have been daydreaming because I just didn’t remember it that way. I thanked him graciously and I told him that I was always glad that he was my principle and that he was the best principle I ever had. In truth, he was. I never saw him again.

Oh, the District Manager that took a chance on me and gave me that first opportunity to be a store manager with Radio Shack, we reconnected after I moved to Goldsboro to start my medical practice. To our mutual delight I am taking care of him now. He’s one of my patients.

How much do our words matter? Even small words have the potential power to devastate or elevate an individual. These days, I am going to do my dead level best to encourage, promote, bolster and affirm others on their journey to what ever future they determine to have. The choice is theirs but when they look back to those who had influence in their lives, I want to be remembered as I remember Mr. Larry Kahill, for whom I am eternally grateful.

Has there been someone like Larry Kahill in your life? Have you been a source for inspiration and encouragement to someone lately?

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One thought on “small words

  1. So true. Words have such power. As a mom, I constantly try to remind myself how the words I say and the tone of the words I say, can have great impact.. To build up or to tear down.
    Thanks for the timely reminder!