An excerpt from The Gift of Influence, Tommy’s newest release now available wherever you buy books!
Have you ever heard an unforgettable story—one that you can’t stop thinking about for days, months, or even years? These kinds of stories aren’t just heartwarming; they make us fundamentally rethink our assumptions. They change the way we see and treat other people. They change the way we live and lead.
I am about to tell you one of those stories. When I heard it for the first time, everything seemed to go still, as if time itself had slowed its relentless march just to ensure I heard about a junior high school teacher named Ms. Lynn. With one simple class exercise on a bright spring day, she taught a roomful of eighth graders that no matter how alone they might feel, however dark and cold life may get, they are loved.
There isn’t a Hollywood movie about Ms. Lynn. I guarantee you’ve never heard of her. But Ms. Lynn’s story moved me more than any movie or book ever has because it beautifully illustrates the simple and awesome power of lifting others up. That, at its heart, is what influence is all about. It’s not telling people how great they are; it’s showing them how great they are. Lifting others up means identifying moments— regardless of how insignificant they may seem— to show that they matter.
After you read about Ms. Lynn, I challenge you to slow down. Slow down as you live your day-to-day life. Slow down as you interact with your co-workers, slow down when you have dinner with your family, slow down when you’re ordering food at a restaurant. Slow down and be aware of the people around you and ask yourself: How can I lift them up, even just a little bit?
On a warm and sunny Friday in March 1962, a thirty-year-old teacher named Ms. Lynn walked into her eighth grade math class. It was the last period of the day before spring break officially began, and Ms. Lynn took a moment to read the energy of the room.
Now, imagine you’re back in eighth grade. Your mind isn’t too focused on geometry to begin with. But at three o’clock on the first beautiful afternoon after a long, cold winter? Only fifty minutes before the beginning of a weeklong vacation? Forget it.
Ms. Lynn watched two boys having a wrestling match and three girls passing notes in the third row. In the corner was a girl rubbing her puffy red eyes. Her name was Betty, and Ms. Lynn knew her parents were in the middle of a divorce. The rest of the class gazed anxiously out the window, hoping to enjoy a brief glimpse of spring. She looked down at her lesson plan: the Pythagorean theorem. There was no way the class would be absorbing A2+B2=C2 and why it was important to calculate the hypotenuse of a right triangle. Most teachers would plow ahead with the lesson anyway. But Ms. Lynn wasn’t like most teachers.
After settling down the wrestlers and telling the girls to put their notes away, she removed a page from a three-ring binder and held it up to the class. “See this piece of paper? This is my lesson plan for today.” Thirty- six pairs of eyes stared at it blankly, and then back out the window. With a slight smile, Ms. Lynn tore it up and tossed the fragments into the trash. The class erupted into applause. Even Betty, still fighting back tears, had a little smile on her face.
“Here’s what we are going to do today,” Ms. Lynn continued. “Everyone take out a piece of paper and a pencil.” She had their attention now. The wrestlers, the note passers, Betty— everyone rummaged around in their desks. In the meantime, Ms. Lynn wrote the first name of each student on the black-board.
“On the left side of your paper, I want you to do what I’m doing. List the first name of everyone in the class.”
There was a flurry of scribbling, a buzz of excited energy. Something was very different about this lesson.
“Okay,” Ms. Lynn said when their pencils were silent. “Now, next to each name, I want you to write one word or phrase that sums up what you love or like or admire or respect or appreciate about that person. Something positive that you’ve noticed about them. Got it?”
Thirty- six heads nodded vigorously and once more there was a flurry of pencils. The wrestlers stared at the page, occasionally popping their heads up to scrutinize the next person on the list. The note passers scribbled faster than their brains could think, pausing frequently to swipe eraser dust from the paper. Even Betty’s eyes seemed less red as she considered each of the names and wrote what she admired about them with her looping penmanship. For the first time in the history of Ms. Lynn’s period five math class, there wasn’t a single peep for fifty minutes. When the bell rang, the students raced to finish their lists and Ms. Lynn sent them on their way, free at last to enjoy spring break.
During her vacation, this is what Ms. Lynn did at home: She took out thirty- six pieces of blank paper, and at the top of each one she wrote the name of one eighth grader from her class. Then she inserted the praise that had been written about them. That’s 1,260 separate messages to organize and record. It took her all week.
On the Monday after spring break, Ms. Lynn’s students re-turned, tanned and with fresh scrapes and bruises from a week of adventures. When class started, she handed each student their list. She watched their faces as they read what their peers had written. Some giggled. Some blushed. There were a few tears, even among the boys. But all were beaming.
And then the exercise was over. Ms. Lynn returned to her lesson plan on calculating the hypotenuse of a right triangle. The students stuffed into their book bags the pieces of paper their math teacher had so carefully prepared. Their eyes wandered back to the window, and they thought about crushes, friends, sports, summer vacation, and everything else on the mind of a typical eighth grader. Before long it was the end of the school year and Ms. Lynn’s students had moved on to high school.
Some years passed. This was now the late 1960s in America, with the Vietnam War in full swing. By 1968 more than half a million Americans were fighting in the jungles against a new kind of enemy that used guerrilla tactics and booby traps. Soldiers trudged through rivers and swamps and all sorts of hell, not knowing when the next attack would come, who would be the next to be picked off by a sniper, who would be the next to trip a landmine. Ms. Lynn was grading papers on her couch one day when the phone rang. The woman on the other end was barely keeping it together. She explained that her son Mark had been killed during the battle of Khe Sanh while defending a military base from the North Vietnamese army. They would be honored if she would join them at the funeral. Ms. Lynn searched her memory and finally remembered Mark: He was one of the wrestlers from her old fifth-period math class. She sat on her couch, stunned. It seemed like yesterday that Mark was goofing off at his desk, a twinkle in his eye, the faintest whisper of a mustache above his lip, the rest of his life in front of him. And now he was gone.
Ms. Lynn went to the funeral and stood for a long time outside the church, gazing at the photos of Mark on display. There was a portrait of him in his dress uniform. He looked dashing, much bigger than the boy she remembered, but the same smile was there. After the service, Mark’s parents invited Ms. Lynn to their house, where they were hosting a small celebration of his life. Upon arriving, she recognized other members of her fifth-period class: there were the other wrestlers, the note passers, and even Betty, who had made it through her parents’ divorce and grown into a strong young woman. Ms. Lynn stood awkwardly in the corner. Most of these people had known Mark intimately for years; they told story after story about his kindness, his intelligence, and his bravery. She felt embarrassed. She had barely known him; what kind of influence could she possibly have passed on?
Then Mark’s father approached her. “Come with me. I’d like to show you something.” He led her out of the living room, down the hallway, and into a small bedroom adorned with posters of rock ’n’ roll bands and sports legends. It was Mark’s room. On the small desk sat some books, old photos, and Little League trophies. The twin bed in the corner was still covered with a neatly spread Nebraska Cornhuskers comforter. But there was one item sitting in the middle of the bed that did not belong to a child: an infantryman’s green camouflage helmet. A cold instrument of war surrounded by the fading memories of childhood innocence.
Mark’s dad picked up the helmet and turned it over. From behind one of the straps, he extracted a yellowed, sweat-stained, scotch-taped piece of paper that must have been folded and refolded thousands of times.
“Here,” he said, handing her the paper. “We found this inside his helmet. It was with him when he was killed. Open it.”
Hands trembling, she carefully unfolded the fragile page. Even though years had passed, she knew instantly what it was. At the top of the page, she recognized a name written in her own script: “Mark.” Below it was a list of thirty- five words and phrases: “Funny,” “Kind eyes,” “Always says hi to me,” “Good guy,” “Best quarterback.” On and on and on. Ms. Lynn read them once, twice, three times. Finally, she looked up, eyes welling.
A tall, strapping young man stepped into the room. It was Mark’s best friend— the other wrestler. “I still have my list too,” he said. “It’s in the top drawer of my desk at home.”
A young woman stepped into the room— one of the note passers. “Mine’s in my wedding album now,” she sobbed.
Then Betty came forward, reached into her purse, and pulled out a tattered piece of paper. “Ms. Lynn, there were times that year when I read this piece of paper every night before I went to bed. Thank you.”
Ms. Lynn stood next to Mark’s bed and looked at the faces of the people crowded around her: Mark’s mother and father, Betty, and the other students from her eighth grade math class. With one thoughtful gesture on a lazy Friday before spring break, she had fundamentally changed thirty- six lives.
Ms. Lynn sat on the bed and suddenly realized she was more than just an eighth grade math teacher. For the first time since she’d gotten that terrible phone call from Mark’s mother, she put her head in her hands and wept.