She was known for her drawing. I was known for my writing. We were in the same homeroom.
That was about the extent of our association.
There was a sort of distant respect between us, she of the more popular kids, I — not. Teachers told us I should write a book, she should do the artwork. But the chasm of junior high made it unlikely, if not impossible. You don’t cross that divide.
She changed my life nonetheless.
I was twelve when the first comment came about how my adolescent appearance was changing. It happened on the bus by a best friend I sat with every day. It was completely innocent, one of those things kids blurt out without thinking, “…I never noticed before!…”
I was shocked. I was too shocked to be hurt, but that would soon change. Before that day, my life had been relatively normal for a school kid. I had friends, I hung out with them, we laughed together, played together. Within months of that friend’s first remark, there were others, not innocent and not innocuous. They were deliberate and hurtful and came from every direction. By the end of that year, I dreaded getting on the bus to begin what became an incessent daily barrage.
Friends I’d had for years didn’t want to associate with “that.” I tried to find strengths, but the pinnings of their foundations were kicked out from under me with every cruel joke, insult, put-down.
By yearbook day, our last day of eighth grade, I was contemplating suicide.
I was approaching the steps of my bus when I heard someone call out my name. It was the artist: “Wait up!” Before I had a chance to respond, she had grabbed my yearbook and flipped open the cover. She quickly jotted a few words, flipped it closed, handed it back to me, told me to have a great summer, and flounced away.
I stared after her, wondering — dreading — what she may have written. I didn’t want to look. I boarded the bus, still looking down through the walkway to see if she’d turn around and give me any indication of what I was in for, but she soon disappeared into the crowd.
The yearbook, red with blue lettering, sat on my lap. I felt like it was mocking me. “Ga’head. Open me. See how bad it is.”
I knew I had to at some point. I took a deep breath. I opened it. And there in the corner were words that will be etched into my brain and my heart forever.
One day I’ll open a magazine, and there you’ll be, a beautiful, graceful model. Have a great summer!
For a moment all I could do was stare. I read it several times, trying to get my head around it. Did she — could she possibly mean that? Or was it another joke? Nah, she can’t possibly…–
On the ride home, I couldn’t stop looking at it. I thought about when I was in elementary school, the boy I had a crush on, who had a crush on me. The boy from the neighborhood who had stolen his grandmother’s cameo ring to give me to show how much he liked me. (My grandmother insisted I give it back, which I was about to do when I lost it in a pile of leaves my grandfather was raking. It was the first cameo I had ever seen and have been in love with them ever since.) I thought about how generally happy I had been as a younger kid. I thought about one of my teachers, who had always talked about beauty beginning on the inside.
Before I got home, the decision was made — I was going to become exactly what the artist had suggested. I knew it was highly unlikely that I’d ever end up in a fashion magazine, but beauty from the inside I knew I could do. As for my appearance, that would take some dedication, but I was determined to pull off better than it currently was. I was going to start wearing beautiful and graceful, as if I had already achieved it, and I was going to do for other people what the artist had done for me. My goal was to hear someone say they had never heard me say a bad thing about anyone.
I left that yearbook open on my dresser all summer and looked at it multiple times every day. My campaign began immediately.
The first day of freshman year, I was standing in the bus area assessing my new surroundings. I had been there maybe five minutes when a tall, insanely gorgeous guy with curly hair and a short beard and mustache walked up to me.
“Hi, are you new?” he asked with a flawless, gleaming smile.
“I am,” I said, smiling back, standing on my months of hard work on confidence.
We chatted for a few minutes, and he said he’d see me at lunch, show me around and introduce me to some people. Fantastic. Then he walked away, “looking forward to it,” he said, with a backward glance and a wink as he walked through the door.
Two girls breathlessly approached me the minute he was out of view.
“Do you know him?” one of them, a surf magazine gorgeous blonde asked. Her friend, a brunette with hair almost as long as mine, overlapped the blonde’s question, also asking if I was new.
I laughed, because I knew what they’d say the minute I told them I was a freshman. And no, I didn’t know the gorgeous guy before he told me his name.
Sure enough, as soon as he found out I was new because I had just started high school, “the most popular senior in the school” dropped his interest like a hot rock.
Disappointing yes, but these first few moments of my brand new public persona had achieved something far more than I had expected and I knew more would change from there. It did.
High school wasn’t tremendously different from junior high as far as how the same kids reacted to me. However I had changed. That’s what was important. By the time I was 16, I overheard coworkers at my after-school job say they had never heard me say a bad word about anyone. By the time I was on active duty a few years later, people in the squadron at which I worked called me “Sunshine” and said they loved that I was always smiling. And several professional photographers asked if I would model for them for portfolios to sell their work to clients.
I have no idea how my life would have been different if the artist hadn’t done what she did. I have no idea in the world what made her do it. I have always been a person of faith, and so many times over the years I have wondered if it was one of those moments you hear about, where an angel taps someone on the shoulder and prods them to do something uncharacteristic or unexpected to help someone in need.
What I do know is that her words and this story had a life-changing impact on me and other people I have known and with whom I have shared them. No life is perfect, and I am nowhere near perfect, but in some of my roughest times and darkest moments, it is her words I have gone back to again and again.
That brief, tiny moment in front of my bus was a tremendous gift, not only for me, but for the people I was able to encourage, support, uplift and help because she did that for me in a few simple words in that yearbook.
For that, you dear, sweet, unaware angel, I will always be grateful.
Me in one of my photo projects about 13 years after the artist wrote in my yearbook. 😉 Photo credit: Buddy Egan