64,288 (give or take)

Wednesday. May 18, 2011. 5:34 a.m. My alarm had been ringing for four minutes before I woke at its insistence. I got up, feeling like a tub of something 72 hours past its use-by date. I was too tired to pee, so I got dressed first, then went in search of the bathroom. After vainly attempting to locate the light switch, I decided I could brush my teeth without looking at them. By 5:54 I was out the door, in my car, pencilled street directions in hand.

Trying to follow detour signs through the Loop in Chicago is an exercise in futility. There is one sign, telling you of the detour. Once you’ve followed that one instruction, the detour pretty much becomes DIY. Luckily, 6 a.m. downtown is not a heavy traffic time. Also, I have a pretty good sense of direction. I eventually found I-290 W and headed home in earnest.

It was raining. Morning rush hour was in full swing on the expressway. My brain was alert and fully occupied through the bottleneck that begins at Austin and ends just past Harlem (every/any day, every/any time, including Sunday afternoons). Eventually, though, the traffic thinned. I paid my first tolls, and I was out of the city. Another 3 hours of driving with the monotonous swish swish swish of the wipers. Unrelenting gray. And eyes that burned with the desire to close.

To keep myself awake, I began replaying the previous night in my head, attempting to reconstruct it from the moment Oprah drove past in the back seat of a taxi (filming the 25,000 people, mostly women, waiting to enter the United Center for her tribute show). In order. There were so many stars, so many video clips, so many images. I couldn’t timeline it. And that’s when the number at the title of this post came to me. It may not be the exact number -though I think it is at least very close. (I was not taking notes.)

64,288. This is the number of people who have received an education because of Oprah. (They didn’t have footnotes explaining how they determined this number, so for once, let’s agree to take it on faith that the number is accurate.)

64,288. I couldn’t stop thinking about how many people that is. How can one person have made such an important difference in so many lives? During one segment of the show, Oprah Winfrey Scholarship winners from Morehouse College filled, and overflowed, the stage. When Oprah joined them, they mobbed her, with hugs and thank you’s. That might have been my favorite moment of the night.

As I drove, I was thinking that these 64,288 people could change everything. I could see the assistance that came from Oprah as the catalyst, like a stone dropped in the middle of a still pond. The first ripple, the lives directly affected by her generosity. The second, the way those lives changed course and affected their families, friends, communities. The ripples, and the number of people affected, could grow exponentially, moving outward into larger and larger circles of influence.

And then I started mentally following the ripples back inward, toward the center. From 64,288 back to one. The still point at the center: one person. OK, so it was Oprah, not exactly your ordinary individual.

Still. I am one person, too. I can be that point from which change ripples outward into the world, if I choose. What would that look like, coming from very ordinary me? One thing I know for sure, to borrow Oprah’s phrase, is that it wouldn’t happen accidentally. Creating real change in the world – whether it is generating a greater atmosphere of kindness, educating the masses, building wells so that whole communities have clean water, or ending hunger – real change doesn’t happen without both intent and action. It isn’t accidental.

And this, my friends, is what kept me awake on the drive home, the morning following the Oprah tribute show. Not remembering the amazing celebrities or their incredible performances, though that was truly an unforgettable experience. Instead, remembering the 64,288.

I am one person. What will I do to change the world for the better?

(note: Thanks to my sister Anne for giving me the ticket to the show! It was a wonderful experience, sis! I love you!)

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