Finding Greatness in the Seemingly Insignificant

Photo by Prateek Katyal on

My twin grandchildren Ian and Abby celebrated their seventeenth birthday on October 1. As I was rummaging through photos of them to post on Facebook I came across one from the awards day when they were in the fifth grade. Both of them received medals for being on the all A honor roll for the year and for outstanding work in various subjects. Near the end of the ceremony the principal began to distribute Presidential Academic Awards that were based on scores from the previous year’s standardized test. Since both Ian and Abby had easily passed those tests we assumed that they would receive the special documents signed by President Barack Obama. 

One name after another was recited until virtually every student in the fifth grade class was standing on the stage. Only three students were still in their seats and one of them was my granddaughter who was by that point heaving as huge tears rolled down her cheeks. She was so embarrassed to be in such a noticeably small group and none of us could understand how it was possible that she did not earn the award. 

As soon as the ceremony had ended my daughter asked the principal if there had been some kind of mistake but she only referred us to the school counselor. The counselor said that even thought Abby had passed every test and even earned commended scores she had not met the required threshold of improvement from one year’s tests to the next. So she did not thereby earn the reward. 

Abby was still devastated. She felt that she had been shamed in front of her peers and their families. She could not understand why her high scores had not been enough to earn the Presidential award and there was no way to console her. In desperation I finally told her that I would personally write to President Obama and explain the situation to him. Of course I never expected to receive a response but my promise calmed her down enough to enjoy the rest of the day. 

I did indeed write to President Obama just as I had told Abby that I would. Weeks and then months went by and I assumed that my letter had ended up with junk mail and would never be acknowledged. Abby had moved on to middle school and didn’t seem to even remember that I had acted on her behalf. Then on her birthday a huge envelope came from the White House. Inside was a very personal letter written and signed by President Obama encouraging Abby to continue working hard and not to be undone by life’s disappointments. Included were photos of the first family and even one of their pet dog. There were also some pins and stickers and the kinds of things that little girls like to receive. 

I had to admit that I was deeply moved by the response and Abby was able to open it in front of her friends who had come to celebrate her birthday. They were oohing and aahing and telling her how lucky she was. I was almost in tears at the sight of her joy. While I tend to believe that perhaps the letter and other items were created by aides of the President, the signature was not just a rubber stamp. President Barack Obama had taken the time to personally sign the document. 

Abby has gone on to become a persistent young woman. When she encounters challenges she works hard to overcome them. It is almost as though she has taken President Obama’s message to her to heart. She works hard and won’t accept defeat. She has literally become the person he described to her in his letter. 

Abby’s moment of embarrassment and actual humiliation in front of a large crowd might have seemed childish and insignificant to most people but it had hurt her deeply. Her principal and school counselor seemed more concerned with following some strange rule than attempting to understand Abby’s feelings. They were unable or unwilling to admit that not giving a certificate to someone who had passed every single test with great scores indicated that something was wrong with the rubric. The letter from the President was symbolic of an administration with great compassion. They read my account and realized the importance of taking the time and the effort to encourage a ten year old girl. That small gesture meant everything to her and to me.

I admittedly was not always a fan of President Obama. He had policies that bothered me, but in that moment I saw the real measure of his administration. In the past four years retrospect has made me more and more appreciative of the kind of leader that he was. He surrounded himself with good people doing their best to lead for all Americans, even a young school girl. I shall forever be grateful for what he did for me and my granddaughter as well as for all the country. Sometimes it is in the seemingly insignificant that we see the most greatness.