As a leader, I’ve always believed that one of my primary roles is it try to say “yes” to people’s ideas. This week, I heard a story that reinforces that principle in a very powerful way. For all of us.
As a boy, Mitchell loved to draw. When he started first grade, he walked up to his teacher and told her “If you’d like any drawings or artwork done for the classroom, I’m your man.”
Upon hearing this bold proclamation, the teacher went to her desk, pulled out a box of multi-colored chalk, removed one piece and drew a square in the corner of the chalkboard at just the right height for little Mitchell.
She then leaned down to him, met him face-to-face and told him. “I would like that. Whenever you’ve finished with all the assigned work, you may draw whatever you would like in that square.”
Mitchell was in heaven. He worked hard at his studies every day, then drew in that square. Getting better every day, he completed hundreds of pieces of chalk art by the end of the school year.
The next year, he went into second grade. Feeling confident, he walked up to his new teacher and told her “If you’d like any drawings or artwork done for the classroom, I’m your man.”
The teacher looked down at Mitchell, placed her hands on her hips and scowled, “Get back to your seat!”
The Teacher Who Inspired an Artist
Thankfully, that second grade teacher didn’t stop Mitchell from drawing. The inspiration he had received from his first grade teacher had buoyed his spirits enough to overcome the negativity from his second grade teacher.
Mitchell Tolle went on to become a great American artist. He’s famous for his paintings of children, senior citizens and wildlife – especially Kentucky wildcats.
But Tolle is probably most well-known for two events.
The first one is the day that Alex Haley, the author of Roots, walked into his gallery and loved his work so much that he bought everything in the gallery. The second one was when he was commissioned to paint a portrait of president Jimmy Carter.
A few days ago, I had the chance to hear Mitchell Tolle speak. He told us the story I just told you. Then he concluded it with these words.
“If my second grade teacher had been my first grade teacher, I never would have been commissioned to paint Jimmy Carter’s portrait.”
Mitchell Tolle spent decades making a very good living doing what he loves, in a profession more known for its failures than its successes. They don’t call them starving artists for nothing.
Mitchell was the exception to that rule. He happily gives his first grade teacher credit for that. He also thanks his father, as you can see in the following video.
The Power of a Positive Influence
We never know who we influence. By our words, attitudes and actions. Both positive and negative.
Mitchell Tolle’s second grade teacher probably told hundreds of kids to get back into their seat over the years – most for good reasons, no doubt. But if the timing had been just one year different for Mitchell Tolle, that single barked command to sit down might have broken the spirit of a young boy and denied us a wonderful American artist.
His first grade teacher, on the other hand, inspired him in a way that fueled both his creativity and his desire to work hard at his school lessons. All with one simple “yes”.
We all influence the lives of people in ways we can never imagine. Especially as pastors and leaders. What we say and how we say it matters more than we may ever know.
Harsh words may keep order and discipline. But they can also kill passion and inspiration. Encouragement inspires people. It breathes life into their dreams, talents and spiritual gifts.
Speak life, hope and encouragement. You never know who’s listening.
Want to know more about Mitchell Tolle? Watch this video to hear him talk about his art.
So what do you think? What kind of impact has an encouraging word had on your life?
We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
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(All photos from paintings by Mitchell Tolle)