“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.”
1 Timothy 4:12
Life is often defined by unexpected moments. Sometimes we feel them coming, but more often than not, they sneak up on us. Other times apparently small, insignificant moments are drawn together to change our lives. You don’t have to live ninety years to feel the weight of these particular moments. Your next moment could be a defining one. I am only 23 years old, but I can already trace certain moments that had a lasting impact. These moments built courage, brought heartache, and taught me humility. They pointed out my youthful pride and stubborn nature. I now see a little bit more how God’s grace was at work in a young kid who had a lot to learn and a determination to beat the odds. One moment in particular still rings in my mind.
I was fourteen years old: a gangly, slightly chubby freshman in high school. After a year of reveling in the supreme reign as the big 8th grade men on the middle school campus my buddies and I were once again the smallest guys during passing period. We were back at the bottom of the totem pole. Everyone else seemed to have found the groove of high school. They were confident and smart, starters on the football, baseball and basketball teams. Upper classmen. We were humbled by a new school, new faces, and most of all, by the new pressure to find a voice among the multitudes. Sure, we knew we had work to do in the classroom. But for my buddies and me, we were particularly interested in making a statement on the field.
Particularly in Texas, football take precedence over just about every sport, even baseball. I was a big kid, so initially it seemed like natural fit for me. Whatever I played, I just wanted to make an impact. Highland Park football has a great winning tradition, and it was a rush to be a part of a team that was so established and legendary. We all felt the need to make a name for ourselves and make others think that we were something. Playing football was a great way to begin high school—going out for the team, grinding through practices with friends, and representing our school during game. Still, nothing captured my heart like baseball.
For the most part, we went into high school with all of our friends from middle school. There were some new faces on the first day of school, but more or less, my eighth grade friends became my classmates at Highland Park High School. I had a tight knit group of guys who had been my best friends since third grade. We did everything together, from sports to carpool to awkward eighth grade dances. We weren’t too interested in girls, but slowly our friend group expanded and we saw the social benefit of getting to know a few of them. In particular, there was one girl that caught my eye. Ellen was funny and seemed comfortable in her own skin. I enjoyed hanging out with her so much that I found myself going to great lengths just to be around her. That’s how I found myself in an optional student leadership class that met for thirteen weeks on Monday evenings. Not really my kind of thing…but then again, Ellen was in it. The administration had recommended underclassmen who showed early signs of leadership. Ellen was a standout. I thought it would be fun to be in there with her.
The class met each Monday night for several hours. We would discuss things like community involvement, service opportunities and leading by example as young high school students. I mastered the art of doodling on the back of my nameplate. One particular Monday, the topic turned to dreams and people of influence. That one class period on that one ordinary Monday night became a defining moment for me. The teacher went around the classroom and asked students to share about their dreams and the people who had been influential in their lives. I heard plenty of well-reasoned responses, aspirations and a list of mentors that any teacher would love to hear. It was finally my turn and the class swiveled in their chairs to hear what I would say. I knew my answer would probably get some critique from the teacher, but I was full of that youthful pride I mentioned earlier. I told everyone that the people of influence in my life were professional athletes. I then confidently declared that my dream was to play baseball professionally.
There were a few chuckles from some friends in the back of the room who all knew where this was going. But I stood my ground, knowing somewhere in my heart that it was a dream worth stating, chasing and even defending. The teacher was gracious in his response, but he got right to the point. He explained to me that goals were certainly important, but that we should always consider the odds. He reminded me of the statistics. High school students have a slim chance of playing college sports and beyond that, college athletes had an even more depressingly slim chance of playing professionally. He didn’t need to touch on the rarity of making it out of the Minor League into the Majors—I was well aware of that statistic as well. A hush fell over the room, and I could tell that my classmates were a little uneasy. I even forgot that Ellen was nearby, listening to each word that came out of my mouth. With a hint of sarcasm, I told the teacher that he had crushed my dream. He could tell that his speech about the odds had left me dejected, so he quickly shifted gears and tried to encourage me. “I do want you to understand the odds, Clayton. They are one in a million. But the important thing is that you see yourself as the one. Don’t think about the million. Visualize yourself being the one who makes it. You are the one. Be the one.”
I smiled and nodded OK. I could have written it off as a lame attempt to salvage my dream, but something actually clicked inside me at that moment. My teacher’s comments inspired my focus on the dream. He hit the nail on the head. Be the one. I started to visualize myself as the one who would make it. Through a teacher in an elective leadership class, the Lord lit a fire underneath me that propelled me towards becoming more of the man He intended me to be.
In his letter to his apprentice Timothy, the apostle Paul gives a powerful charge, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). What Paul says to Timothy is exactly what I learned that evening in the Leadership 101 class. It doesn’t matter how old you are—anyone can make an impact. Dreams are just dreams until you take a step towards them. Then the dream becomes a goal. Our culture today tells us that all of our goals and motivations should lead towards a better, more comfortable, more successful life for us. We don’t have to listen long to get the message. The world is telling us over and over, “Life is all about you.” And yet I can’t help but stop and ask, “What’s it really all about?” Personal achievements matter, but only to a certain point. I realized in class that day that the odds would not define me. People could question my dream and my drive all day, but in the end, the Lord had a plan for my life. I wanted the Lord to define me. I wanted my life to be all about Him.
As a freshman in high school, I was young and had a lot to learn. I still do. But even as a freshman sitting in a leadership class, I saw the opportunity to set an example. I knew that I loved baseball and that I wanted to play professionally. I also knew that the odds were tough and people would do whatever it took to get there. But the thought of setting an example for others, even as a young person, that was intriguing to me.
I still look back at that moment. I am grateful that it happened and I am grateful for that teacher who spoke a bit of reality into a stubborn 14-year-old. But more than anything, I am grateful to God for the dream that He rooted deep in my heart. I set out at that young age to set an example for those who were watching. I was hoping that Ellen would watch, too. I was anxious to strive beyond personal achievement and to be about something more than just getting ahead in life. It was a lofty dream of an overly confident kid in a freshman leadership class. But I am so thankful for that moment when I dared to believe that, by God’s grace, I could be one in a million.