Simple Little Words Sample Chapter
One Word Made All the Difference
Dennis E. Hensley, Ph.D. –professor and author
Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that
you may know how you ought to answer each other.
In my capacity as a professor of English at Taylor
University Fort Wayne, I teach a survey course in world
literature that students of all majors are assigned to take as part
of their liberal arts requirements.
A few years ago, one of my students was a junior who was
majoring in elementary education. His name was Sean, and he
was a member of our school’s wrestling squad. Sean had a
shaved bullet head, legs like fire hydrants, a back that could put
Atlas to shame, and biceps that looked like the drawing on
boxes of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda. This guy was tough.
Sean enjoyed sports, and he especially was good at
weightlifting and track and field events, such as discus or
hammer throwing. However, he wasn’t overly keen on
literature. I knew quickly I’d have my work cut out in making
him an admirer of Keats, Shakespeare, Dante, and Melville.
I modified Sean’s reading list for that semester to include
high seas adventures by Jack London, mysteries by Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle, and military works by Rudyard Kipling. We met
in my office once each week to discuss the books and short
stories, and I was ever encouraging of Sean in his ability to
recognize symbolism, foreshadowing, flashbacks, and other
elements of literary expressions that I had been lecturing about
As the semester advanced, so did Sean’s grades. He had
started as a C student, then rose to the B level. As I showed the
class how the applications of literary analysis also would help
them better appreciate plays and movies, they all became more
and more eager to get to class each day. Sean started sitting in
the front row, taking copious notes, and I continued to
compliment him on his diligence and studiousness.
Then, one day, as I was grading papers, I was delighted to
be able to give a perfect A to Sean on one of his quizzes over a
new short story I’d had the students read for that week. At the
end of the quiz I wrote, “This is superb work, son. I
congratulate you. You’ve been working hard, and this is the
payoff. Well done!”
I passed the papers back, and I watched as Sean’s face lit
up in a grin when he saw the huge red A atop his quiz.
However, when he turned the page over and read my personal
note to him, his countenance changed entirely. He lowered his
face, avoided eye contact with me the entire rest of the class,
and left just as soon as the bell rang. I was thoroughly confused
by such behavior until two days later.
During office hours, I glanced up to see Sean’s hulking
frame taking up my entire doorway. “Can I come in for a
moment, Dr. Hensley?” he asked me. I motioned him toward a
chair, and he closed the door behind him. I could see that he
had his quiz in his hand.
“Sir,” he began, but then stopped. He lowered his head,
and suddenly I realized that this giant of a man was actually
weeping. I was stunned. I gave him a moment to collect
himself. “Sir, you don’t know my background.”
I said nothing as Sean fished a handkerchief from his back
pocket and wiped his eyes.
“My dad left my mom and me when I was only seven,”
Sean said in a low voice. “I somehow felt it was my fault that
he left. I got it into my head that if I could just be a better son,
my dad would come back and live with us again. We’d all be
He paused, then added, “So, I played every sport at my
schools and all the summer sports I could sign up for. I thought
that if I could just hit enough home runs or score enough
touchdowns or shoot enough baskets, my dad would be proud
of me and would come back.”
“Did it work?” I asked gently.
Sean shook his head. “My dad only showed up at three of
my games during ten years that I was involved in sports. It was
no big deal to him. I tried my best to impress him, but I always
felt that I’d failed. I haven’t heard from my dad for the past
two years, and I probably never will. I thought I had gotten past
I leaned forward a little. “Until what, Sean?”
“Until I got my quiz back from you day before yesterday,”
he said, looking directly at me. “You praised me…and you
called me son. You might have meant it just as a passing catch-
phrase from an older man to a younger fellow, but it hit me like
a freight train. I realized at that moment, that all my life I’ve
wanted to have a man whom I looked up to, to tell me he was
proud of me and to call me son. You have no idea what this
note on this paper means to me. I plan to keep this for the rest
of my life.”
Sean wiped another sudden rush of tears from his eyes.
“I came here to tell you something, Dr. Hensley. I want you to
know that I am going to conduct my life from here on out—in
everything I do—so that you will always be proud enough to
call me son. I won’t ever let you down. I promise you that.
You’ve given me something that I’ve been yearning for my
entire life, and I want to protect it.”
He rose, and so did I. I shook his hand and gave him a
manly hug, concluding with a slap on the shoulder. “You're a
fine man, Sean,” I assured him. “I have no doubt you'll make
me proud of you in whatever you do in life.”
A year later Sean graduated with his degree in elementary
education. He passed the licensing examination for Indiana and
took a job in one of the worst elementary schools in inner city
Indianapolis. Most of the students there were from single parent
families, and all were desperately poor. Sean became a
surrogate father to many of them. He would take his old van
into the projects and ghettos and pick up dozens of children and
take them to sporting events, Saturday movies, or vacation
Bible school. He called the boys “son” and the girls “daughter,”
and they loved it.
In calling Sean “son,” I not only changed his life, I gave
him a focus on the ministry he wanted for his lifetime calling.
He’s now changing the lives of hundreds of other fatherless
Yes, indeed, one word of encouragement can change the
The hope is always here, always alive, but only your fierce
caring can fan it into a fire to warm the world.
Put someone in my path today that needs to hear that someone
cares. Please give me the words to encourage them and to
make a difference in their life. Thank you for those who have
invested in me by providing words of comfort, hope, and
inspiration when I’ve needed to hear them.
©2008 Cook Communications Ministries. Simple Little Words
by Michelle Cox and John Perrodin. Used with permission.
May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.