I finished speaking and, as the room clapped, ten or twelve rows into the crowd a young woman stood up. Of all the things I’d ever imagined about a standing ovation, I’d never imagined that a speaker would see that first person stand – and that the two of us would make eye contact.
In movies or TV, the crowd often bursts to their feet at the end of a speech, or when the curtain falls on a play. It’s shown as inevitable, involuntary… and hugely rockstar. But the reality for me on that day was a lot less rockstar and a lot more personal.
She was an Asian-American student going to be a senior in high school. I know that because I was speaking to the Missouri Scholars Academy, a summer program at the University of Missouri Columbia. The program brings together 330 of the smartest high school juniors in the state to stay at Mizzou and take classes for three weeks.
She stood, and I saw her stand… and it startled me. Then very quickly a couple of people in her row stood. Then a person over to my left and about a half dozen rows up, I believe. And another stood and a few more here and there. By the time the people in the front row sensed anything, a huge number of people were already standing.
Everyone in the room except for me – and the organizers – was going to be a senior in high school. And they all stood and clapped because of me and my story, but really it was because of her.
The choice to stand, and that single moment of eye contact: that’s how long it takes to influence others, or to indelibly impact someone’s life. I hope she reads this and learns that lesson from me as powerfully as I learned it that day from her.