Other than an annual trip to the beaches of Rhode Island, I rarely traveled out of my Massachusetts neighborhood as a kid. We didn’t have a family car, so I only ventured as far as the city buses could take me. Then one day my world got a whole lot bigger.
I was in the sixth grade when a tall, beautiful woman was suddenly standing in front of our class, a crude chalk rendering of the continent of Africa drawn on the blackboard behind her. Quickly, we learned that she was our new student teacher who, much to my excitement, was from that very same far off continent.
Now, in the age of democratized air travel, the internet, and the Travel Channel, that may not seem all that exciting but in the early 1970s it was cause for me to run home at breakneck speed and crack open the encyclopedia to learn all about my new teacher’s home. I scanned it furiously, zooming from images of the Congo to pictures of exotic animals and vast expanses of land that looked nothing like my now mundane neighborhood. It all seemed so mysterious and when my student teacher took her turns in front of the class, I was enthralled by her unfamiliar accent and riveted to her every word.
Then one day came the big announcement. She was going to start a club after school and we were all invited to join. I couldn’t sign up fast enough for my new obsession: The African Club. Once a week, a group of five boys and girls from my class went to my teacher’s apartment and heard stories of Africa; the people, the traditions, the costumes, the food.
Soon we were bugging her for more and she gladly gave it to us. We began making the food that she had told us about, sitting in a circle, crossed legged on the floor, listening to African music and scooping our delicacies with our fingers formed into a U shape just the way they did in her homeland. I can still taste the zing that we were able to put into our crumbled hamburger with dashes of spices we had never before tasted.
By the end of the semester, we were all beginning to feel a bit exotic ourselves. So we decided to strut our stuff in the form of “African Night at Woodland Street School.” The whole school was invited to our extravaganza which featured mural renderings of Africa, tables of the food we were now experts at making, and the piece de resistance, a fashion show.
I spent weeks preparing for that display of African fashion, getting bottles of Rit Dye from Woolworth’s, sewing a simple dress and then twisting it with rubber bands and dropping it into a vat of boiling dyed water to make an authentic African costume. When the big night came, I proudly took the stage to model my brown tie dyed dress and head band, offset by my very Western cat eye glasses.
It was a great night, a great semester, and a great club. It opened my mind. It broadened my perspective.
The club didn’t last past the one semester my student teacher was with us but the experience of that group broadened my world and my way of thinking. As an influence, that striking woman from Africa was unparalleled. She did what all good leaders do.
She took us beyond ourselves. She got us excited about the unknown. She not only told us about the unfamiliar, she immersed us in it. She had us touch it, smell it, taste it. She influenced us to crave more, to throw ourselves into it. She moved us from “what is” to “what could be.”
What can you do today to influence people to reach beyond the familiar and into craving the unknown?