Photo credit: Forest Road in Oregon by Michael Matti, a Creative Commons licensed image on Flickr.
We started a new innovation series in this new year. It’s 18 Days to Storytelling for Innovation, a program on the Avanoo platform. (Thanks to Anna Higgins, our Director of Innovation, for leading us.) We watch a short video each day and reflect on it individually and as a group. I’m going to chronicle my individual reflections here.
Day One—The Graduation Speech
Today’s video reflection asked us to write down a story we’ll never forget and some aspects of it that make it memorable.
I heard the story I’ll never forget my sophomore year of high school. The setting was our high school gymnasium. We were gathered together for an all-school assembly. After the athletic letters and academic awards had been celebrated, we settled in to listen to a guest speaker. Normally these were yawners—some muckety-muck visiting to lecture us on responsibility, our future, or politics. That day’s guest was different and had our full attention within minutes.
The speaker was an older man. (“Older man” then meant he was probably in his early to mid-thirties. Oh, to be young again.) He was silent and still for the first minute. And then he started:
Three high school boys climbed in their car after a day at the lake last summer. It had been a perfect, sunny day and they had been swimming, tubing, and diving for hours. It was time to start the 45-minute drive home. They had been on the road just long enough for the vinyl seats to stop burning the backs of their thighs when a station wagon came speeding up behind them. The driver, a man, stayed on their bumper for a few moments and then swerved into the oncoming lane to pass. Shortly after he passed the boys’ car, he slowed down.
The boys cursed, honked, flipped him off, and pulled around him. They joked about never turning into “grandpa drivers.”
A few minutes later, the driver passed the boys again. And a few moments after that, he slowed again. This time he was swerving within the lane as he slowed. The boys, even more annoyed, passed him again, flipped him off again, and joked even more. They sped up to leave him behind.
Five minutes had passed when they saw him approaching them again. The boys swerved into the center of the road to block him from passing again. The older driver honked and swerved side to side to find a way around their car. He finally succeeded. He didn’t slow down this time, but the boys were enraged. They sped up even more, passed the single driver, and once they had pulled away again, threw on the brakes and stopped with their car sideways, blocking both lanes of the quiet road.
The driver laid on the horn as he approached, came to a quick stop, and jumped out of his car. Before the boys could say a word, he yelled, “My 5-year old son is laying in the back of my car. He was stung by bees and cannot breathe. Let me pass!” One of the boys ran over to the station wagon and saw the young boy passed out in the back and shouted back to his friends. They moved the car quickly, their anger gone, and fell in behind the station wagon to chase him to the hospital.
The other driver’s son died en route to the hospital.
I am the other driver. That was my son.
I am not here today to tell you those young boys did something wrong or how you should drive. They thought I was a crazy, annoying driver. I was. What seemed like a crazy driver was a father trying to drive quickly and check on his son at the same time. Each time I passed, I turned to check on my son and inevitably slowed down and/or swerved. They could not see the young boy in the back.
I am here today to tell you my story. You will make your own meaning from it.
At that, the speaker walked out of the gym. We all sat in stunned silence. No one clapped. No one snickered.
The story is still with me, over 25 years later. I think about that station wagon and panicked father when I encounter erratic drivers. I think about all the things I don’t know about that driver’s story that day. The story has informed both my personality and view on life. I believe I have stronger patience and a slower rush to judgement because of it.
The story is memorable (and was intense at the time of its telling) because of three key aspects:
- Its ending was a surprise. I made an assumption in the first few moments of the story that something bad would happen to the teenage boys. I wasn’t alone in thinking the story was headed a different direction.
- The storyteller told a story and then walked away. As teenagers, we were used to older speakers lecturing us or telling us the meaning of things.
- The storyteller shared the loss of his young son openly, with no finger pointing, blame, or preaching.