It is said that a compliment, delivered at the most opportune moment, has the power to change a life. This, at least, was true for one little boy from the high mountains of Chicago.

Half a century ago, 9-year-old Joel moved, together with his family, from the high mountains of Chicago to a poor neighborhood in New York City, in the hope of earning a decent living. 

Upon arrival, the little boy felt overwhelmed by the new and vibrant life he had in New York City. 

At his new school, he was shunned and scoffed at by his other classmates. Joel slowly came to realize that no one at the school wanted to make friends with a skinny and poor child from the countryside like him. For three months, fear and heavy feelings of inferiority undermined his learning and he fell quickly to the bottom of the class.

After the winter vacation, Mr. Paul, the teacher of his class, was suddenly hospitalized, so a new teacher, Mr. Sean came to replace him. He was a strict but fair teacher who never raised his voice or spoke a harsh word to any of his students. What made Joel feel comforted was that Mr. Sean, like Joel, was black.

One day, Mr. Sean announced the mid-term exam results. He looked throughout the class, and one-by-one announced their results. When he came to Joel, he stopped for a while, making him tremble with fear. To all of the other students’ surprise, he then happily said, “The test results are very good, and there is one person who has done better than any other. I appreciate all of your efforts.”  The student with the best results was none other than Joel!

Needless to say how Joel was overjoyed. Previously, every time Mr. Paul had read out the test results, he was pained to find that he was at the bottom of the class. 

At the end of the lesson, Mr. Sean called Joel back and gently said, “Oh, Joel, today you are at the top of the class. Great!” Joel tried to resist but instantly burst into tears. Mr. Sean held Joel in his arms and said, “Don’t be afraid. Try your best, I will always be with you”.

From that day on, the image of Mr. Sean’s warmth and caring embrace appeared in Joel’s mind whenever he doubted himself. Joel gradually regained his confidence and strength and went on to become the best student in the class by the end of the school year. In the following years, Joel was always amongst the top students of the class. 

The timid young Joel later became Dr. Joel Bawilley who teaches at the prestigious Michigan State University. Dr. Joel shared, “Right now when I am giving lectures to hundreds of students of a well-known university, I never forget my teacher.”

After forty years of separation, Joel was fortunate to discover the whereabouts of his former teacher, Mr. Sean. Dr. Joel Bawilley immediately jumped in his car and drove three hundred kilometers to visit him. The reunion is very touching. Upon meeting with his former student, Mr. Sean revealed that, in the old days, Joel’s test results were merely ‘good’, but he made a conscious decision to give him a special compliment. He could see how hard Joel was trying and knew that all he needed was to hear the words for them to become true. 

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