Sermon Illustration: Words Matter
A great illustration when discussing the power of affirmation, I found this from chapter 7 in Chip and Dan Heath’s The Power of Moments:
Kira Sloop remembers it as the worst year of her life. It was 1983 and she was entering the sixth grade. “Imagine, if you will, an awkward 11-year-old with a terrible set of teeth, out-of-control curls, and very low self-esteem,” she said. Her parents had divorced during the summer prior to the start of school.
The one class she looked forward to was chorus. Sloop had a powerful voice and a “flair for the dramatic,” she said. Relatives told her she should be a country singer.
Something happened early in the semester that is still seared into her memory. The students were arranged into groups on the risers: altos, sopranos, tenors, and baritones. The music teacher – “a woman with a beehive-ish hairdo and a seemingly permanent frown on her face” – led the choir in a familiar song, using a pointer to click the rhythm of the song on a music stand.
Then, Sloop remembered, “She started walking over toward me. Listening, leaning in closer. Suddenly she stopped the song and addressed me directly: ‘You there. Your voice sounds. . . different. . . and it’s not blending in with the other girls at all. Just pretend to sing.'”
The comment crushed her: “The rest of the class snickered and I wished the floor would open and swallow me up.” For the rest of the year, whenever the choir sang, she mouthed the words.
“Chorus was supposed to be my favorite thing,” she said. “My family said I could sing, but the teacher said I couldn’t. So I started to question everything.” She began to act out, hanging out with the wrong crowd at school. It was a dark time.
Then, in the summer after her seventh-grade year, she attended a camp for gifted kids in North Carolina called the Cullowhee Experience. She surprised herself by signing up to participate in chorus. During practice, she mouthed the words, but the teacher noticed what she was doing and asked Sloop to stick around after class.
The teacher was short and thin, with hair down to her waist – a “lovely flower child,” said Sloop. She invited Sloop to sit next to her on the piano bench, and they began to sing together in the empty room.
Sloop was hesitant at first but eventually lowered her guard. She said, “We sang scale after scale, song after song, harmonizing and improvising, until we were hoarse.”
Then the teacher took Sloop’s face in her hands and looked her in the eyes and said: “You have a distinctive, expressive, and beautiful voice. You could have been the love child of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.”
As she left the room that day, she felt as if she’d shed a ton of weight. “I was on top of the world,” she said. Then she went to the library to find out who Joan Baez was.
“For the rest of that magical summer,” Sloop said, she experienced a metamorphosis, “shedding my cocoon and emerging as a butterfly looking for light.” She became more and more confident in her singing. In high school, she joined the theater department and played the lead in almost every musical production. She grew comfortable in front of audiences until, in her proudest moment, she sand with her choir and Carnegie Hall.
Carnegie Hall! This was the same girl who had once been told to “mouth the words.”