Contributing Author: Mary Ashley, NDAA Well-being Task Force Vice Chair

A friend sent me a poignant story about a teacher who gave an assignment to her students to make a list of every student’s name and next to each name, write down the nicest thing they could say about each classmate. The teacher sorted through all the papers and the following day, gave each student a piece of paper with their name and all the nice things their classmates said about them. Before long, the entire class was smiling. The teacher could hear whispers liked “wow” and “I never knew that I meant that much to anyone” and “I didn’t know others liked me so much”. Afterwards, no one really mentioned it again and the teacher never knew anything other than for one day it made the students happy with themselves. Several years later, one of the students, now an adult, was killed in Iraq while in the military and the teacher attended his funeral. “Mark” had been in her math class and the teacher saw several former students at the services. One of the pallbearers approached the teacher and asked, “Were you Mark’s math teacher?” and she nodded “yes”. He then said, “Mark talked about you a lot.”

After the funeral, most of Mark’s former classmates attended the reception along with his math teacher. Mark’s parents approached his math teacher to speak with her at the reception. “We wanted to show you something,” his father said and took out a piece of paper from his pocket. “They found this on Mark when he was killed. We thought you might recognize it”. The paper had been wrinkled, taped and folded many times, but the teacher knew without looking what it was. “Thank you so much for doing that,” Mark’s mother said. “As you can see, Mark treasured it.” All the former classmates gathered around, with several admitting they still had their pieces of paper hidden away at home or kept in a special place. Some placed them in their wedding albums. Some in their diaries. Another took hers out of her purse and stated she kept it with her all the time. It would appear they all saved their lists. For the first time, the teacher realized the impact she had made. She cried for all those who would never see Mark again but also knew that she made a difference in his life.

A touching tale, for certain. And the message is clear. So why is it that we wait — or even sometimes never — let people know what we appreciate about them and what their impact is on our life? What is your most prized physical possession in the world? Your home? A car? Your phone? Possibly a family heirloom of some kind? For me, I save the cards people give me. Especially the ones where they write personal notes in them. They are worth nothing to anyone but me. I find the things that are most valuable are often the things that couldn’t be sold — the time you give to someone; the smile you share with a stranger; the memories that you create with your family and friends. These are priceless things. It is particularly special for me to read something that someone wrote to me who has since passed away, to look at their handwriting and remember who they were to me. I realize that handwritten notes are quickly becoming a thing of the past, if they aren’t already. Even buying a card is becoming antiquated, when you can easily just send a text or email and save money on the card and stamp. I am a fan of modern technology, but I really miss the personalized simplicity of a handwritten note. However, I think any communication that expresses gratitude, kindness or well wishes from another is a beautiful thing, be it Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Emoji or whatever technology presents itself. It is far better than silence.

If you don’t believe me, look at some of the research and science behind the health benefits of giving praise and feeling appreciated. In Why compliments make us feel so good — and how to get better at giving them, the author, Sarah DiGiulio, explains why appreciation is so important, citing several sources. (Better by Today, nbcnews.com, Oct.7, 2019) Feeling valued is a basic human need. Knowing we are appreciated helps us work through challenges. According to Marcia Naomi Berger, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist and author of Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted, being complimented actually lights up the same parts of your brain that get activated when receiving a monetary reward. Some research indicates that praise and recognition may help us learn new motor skills and behaviors. In Jeff Haden’s article Want to Make a Difference in Someone’s Life? Follow the 1-Minute Rule, he outlines short concepts and recommends that we should think of the word “love” as a verb. Actively loving people by showing them with your words and deeds (Inc.com, Oct. 17, 2016). He also discusses the idea of while we are always striving for more, we need to appreciate what we have now and our relationships with others.

I used to think that “making your mark” meant you had to achieve a major accomplishment in life that was known to others. What if it was as easy as letting someone else know how we value them and making an impression on their life? Just like the teacher in the story, we can all make our “Mark” in this world by simply sharing with someone why they are special and what they mean to you. It’s that simple.

Well-being Task Force Vice Chair, Mary Ashley, is a Deputy District Attorney with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office. Along with being a Board member of NDAA, Mary is also a member of the California District Attorneys Association and NDAA’s Vice Chair of the Women Prosecutors Section.

The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) is the oldest and largest national organization representing state and local prosecutors in the country.