It has been said that the slightest flutter of an insect´s wings in West Africa can alter the air currents there in such a way that they can give birth to a small gust of wind that with time will reach the blue seas of the Atlantic. If, by chance, it makes contact with a small storm brewing off the coast of Sierra Leone or Liberia, this little gust of wind can be the missing ingredient needed to push it farther out to sea towards the far way land of America. And, if the conditions are right, this little storm that was given life by a tiny bug thousands of miles away may in turn become a great and awesome hurricane by the time it reaches the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
They call this theory the Butterfly Effect. How could a butterfly cause a storm? Butterflies are beautiful, gentle and peaceful in nature. They are also small. Do you think that means they are unimportant? Small and light as they are, butterflies are an essential part of nature. The way they flutter their wings can move the smallest blade of grass, which can bend enough to move an acorn, which could catch a squirrel’s eye. The Butterfly Effect is about how everything starts from something small. It reminds me that people´s actions— no matter how small, no matter how routine— can have impacts larger than anyone can ever imagine.
Growing up, as my old friends can attest, I was almost always the shortest kid in my class. When I was in seventh grade, I was tied for the coveted award of “Shortest Person in the Middle School.” While I fortunately grew to the somewhat average (albeit still short) height of five foot seven inches, that never stopped me from being the brunt of jokes.
When I was in second grade, a few of these jokes upset me so much that I started to cry. Upon seeing this, the substitute teacher that day pulled me aside and asked me what was wrong. I told her what happened, and I mentioned that I was upset that being were making fun of me for something that I had no control over.
She then did something that I remember for the rest of my life.
She took me aside, grabbed a kleenex and wiped the tears from my little face, and then bent down and placed her arms on my shoulders.
She tilted my head up, looked me straight in the eyes, and said: “It doesn´t matter if you are small. You know who else was short? Napoleon. And he conquered most of Europe.”
I had no idea who Napoleon was. I had heard his name on TV perhaps, but he was nothing more than a foriegn sounding name from a foriegn sounding place.
Nevertheless, it made me feel better.
She then lifted her hands of my shoulders, stood up, and gestured that I go. I spun around and ran back to play with my friends, forgetting all about the sadness and anger that had gripped me just minutes before.
When I was getting ready for better that night, I couldn´t stop thinking about Napoleon. I wanted to know more, I wanted to know how he did the things he did and why he did them.
I hopped out of my bed and jumped over to my bookshelf to look for my books on history. From those books, I learned that Napoleon was a man from the island of Corsica who during the French Revolution rose from being a low ranking officer to the leader of great armies. By the first decade of the 19th century, his empire streched for hundreds of miles, engulfing country’s and lands that stood in his way. He did some great things, and some terrible ones.
And yes, he was quite short.
Out of this, I began to read more and more history. I wanted to know why Napoleon saw fit to invade his country´s neighbors. I also wanted to know why millions of people tried to stand in his way. In order to this, I had to delve farther back in time. I read of the Renassaince, of the Middle Ages. Of the Crusades and the Roman Empire. And even though recorded history stops, of the the Cro Magnon, Neanderthals, and the first people who came to the continent from Africa and Asia. Eventually, I got to the forming of our planet 4 billion or so years ago and then the forming of the Universe with the Big Bang.
And there, my love of history was born.
Fast forward nearly a decade and a half. Right now, I am studying history far away in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I am attending college on scholarship and plan on graduating next May. Last summer, I had the great opportunity to travel to Ghana in West Africa and the United Kingdom to learn about the past and present day impacts of the historical Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
In the pursuit of my studies, I have had amazing opportunities to put my talents to their best use. Plus, I have met some fascinating people and read amazing works of analysis and literature!
I cannot remember the teacher´s name from that day in the second grade, nor do I think she remembers mine. Over the coming years, she substituted for my class many more times, never really interacting with me more than she would with any other students. I doubt she has any clue how she changed my life. Or how her little gesture has helped to make me the man I am today.
Like an African butterfly, you have the chance to do things that can have great impact. Your words and actions may of course be like many little gusts of wind that go to sea only to be lost in the wide ocean. You can, of course, take the little difficulties of life and become like the hurricane that causes problems for those arounds you.
You also have another option, that of becoming a nurturing rather than destructive force. For every huricane that strikes the shores of North America, there are hundreds if not thousands of smaller storms that rain down upon the earth giving life to the orange groves of Florida, the sugarcane fields of Cuba, or the cotton fields of the Deep South.They quench the thirst of those who need it most: the people, animals, and plants who would be lost without their help.
In my life, I know I will fail. I will make mistakes, say things I should not have, and hurt the feelings of both those I care about and those I do no know. I am convinced, however, that if we all try our best we will all send out many more well intentioned gusts of wind than poorly directed ones.
You do not need to be a rich businessman, a great writer, a President, or even someone remotely famous to do great things. All you need is good intentions and hard work.
You can be someone who helps or someone who bullies; that is choice to make. All I ask is that you keep your head up and strive for what is right.
And, with a bit of luck, you can really change the world.
Hopefully, for the better.