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If you’re a business leader, you likely have your share of critics. I know I have my own fan club. I’ve told this story in other mediums, but I think it bears repeating because sometimes the world can be a very tough place that seems to serve to beat people down. My high school teacher, Mrs. Busch taught me how to overcome the words of critics, and it’s a lesson that I have not forgotten decades later.

Unexcused Latenesses

The first time I walked into Mrs. Busch’s classroom, I was a sophomore in high school. I remember there was something special about my new teacher, and I didn’t realize the impact she would make on my life.

For some mornings, a fellow female classmate was late to school. The policy of the school was to suspend the student after the third unexcused lateness. There were no exceptions and a zero tolerance policy. The day this student showed up late for the third time, I remember Mrs. Busch asked the girl to the front of the room. She then slid a quarter across her desk and to the girl.

She told the young student to call her mom on the pay phone and ask her mother to call the school and inform administration that the reason she was late to school was that she wasn’t feeling well. This approach was so kind and compassionate that the young student missed the favor and chance Mrs. Busch was offering her until the teacher had told her for the third time to call her mom.

Mrs. Busch cared about her students, and she cared about me.

Slap in the Face With Words

When I was a kid, I was a tall and awkward young man who never felt he fit in anywhere. As the youngest of four, I was trying to form an identity and strong sense of self. I was a tall young man (I stand 6’4” today) and even with that height, I felt like an outsider and overlooked.

One day, another teacher told me I would amount to nothing. That’s probably one of the most devastating things you can tell a kid, and this teacher said the words so cavalierly as if they meant nothing–as if I meant nothing.

I struggled even more after that proverbial slap in the face. I had no idea how I was going to continue forward on my path because I didn’t know how to become the person I am. It was a fragile time in my life, and I will share with you that I wanted to disappear.

High School Can be Tough

Thankfully, Mrs. Busch was there, and her path crossed mine, and she saved my life.

A little time after the teacher told me I would amount to nothing, I had a day that was an unending stream of disappointments and frustrations. Although I was a popular kid, I was a mess inside. I projected an image that day of confidence. I joked around with others, and I made a big show of things even though I was suffering.

Fortunately for me, Mrs. Busch knew her students, and me, better.

She pulled me to the side and asked me what was wrong. At first, I tried to cover up my feelings, but within minutes I felt the dam break. I told her everything I had been feeling. I also told her the comment the other teacher had made about my amounting to nothing in life.

You Can Do Anything

I’ll never forget her words and how she said them with sincerity, “Wayne, you can do anything you want to do. Just do it.”

That was the first time anyone had ever told me I could make something happen, and I could do something. That day, Mrs. Busch unlocked the world of possibility and opportunity which had escaped me during my childhood and adolescence. Mrs. Busch gave me permission to dream big. No one had ever told me and believed that I could make a dream a possibility.

From that day forward, Mrs. Busch’s words and kindness fueled my drive. And decades after I graduated from high school, I’ve treated any critic in my life the same way–I’ve proved him or her wrong.

And when they’ve been trolls, I’ve just ignored them.

I’m forever grateful to Mrs. Busch for having been there for a tall and awkward kid who pretended everything was fine, when it wasn’t. I’m also thankful that she was able to see through the veneer of the show I was putting on for her and others. With Mrs. Busch, I learned, words matter.

That story may seem simple, but the words of Mrs. Busch have served me well in business and life through the years. Nothing sticks when you keep words in perspective and simply keep moving forward.