I work in a school. So whenever I go into a public washroom, I see students – young women on their phones, taking selfies, laughing with friends, fixing their lipstick. Sometimes I have the unfortunate experience of walking into a washroom and seeing a girl crying. Most of the time, they’ve got a friend to support them through whatever is going on in their life. And sometimes I walk into a washroom and I’m reminded of an instance when I was in grade twelve, of an act of kindness that always sort of blew me away. That was nearly ten years ago, and I still think about it to this day.
It was the first day back from summer – my first day of my last year of high school. I’d signed up for an art class that was meant to focus on theatre set and costume design. Due to an underwhelming registration for that class, they’d merged it with the grade twelve art students’ class. I hadn’t taken art since grade nine, and these guys were all naturals. The teacher told us to draw a person’s face in two minutes – just a rough sketch using techniques we’d learned (which I hadn’t learned, because I wasn’t an art student). He came around to my desk and told me I was doing it wrong. Each similar exercise, he’d approach me and said I needed to draw faster: I wasn’t doing it right; I wasn’t good enough. Eventually he just didn’t walk around the class anymore, he just stood in front of my desk and criticized me in front of everyone. Finally, I’d had enough. I threw my pencil down and stormed out of the room, not waiting to burst into tears until I’d reached the girls’ bathroom. I don’t like any sort of attention, and all of his negativity was terrible.
I locked myself in a stall and started sobbing. Was this what grade twelve was going to be? It was only the first day and I already couldn’t handle the stress.
That’s when I heard a timid knock on the stall door. Quiet and curious. Then, a voice as small as her knock. “Um, hi – are you okay in there?”
I sniffled and wiped my face, even though she couldn’t see me. “Yeah.” She obviously knew that was a lie, so I back-tracked. “No, I don’t know.”
“Do you want to talk?” Really? This girl actually cared enough to talk me down from this? I sighed and opened the door. The girl was tiny. I barely remember what she looked like, but I remember she was smaller than me. “Are you okay?”
I explained what happened with my art teacher, and the girl shook her head. “What grade are you in?” she asked me. I told her twelve. Then she said the part that blew my mind. “I’m in grade nine.”
It was this girl’s first day of high school. She should have been terrified. Intimidated. Hoping just to get herself through the day. But this thirteen/fourteen-year-old girl had the courage to step up and knock on that door. And even though I was quietly sniffling into my tissue paper, she kept talking. “I can’t imagine how hard grade twelve is going to be. You’ve got to start thinking about graduation and school is getting harder… This is only my first day of grade nine, and it’s a little scary. But that teacher seems mean. Do you think you can drop the class?”
I’d never considered dropping a class in my life. I loved school a lot. But I didn’t need it to graduate. I could have a spare period. She was being the logical one and talking me down from my anxiety attack. “Yeah, I think I could.”
“If you don’t like the teacher, and you don’t like the class, maybe stick it out for a few days and if you still don’t like it – drop it.”
“Do you want a hug?”
“Sure.” I smiled as this girl wrapped her arms around me and actually squeezed. Not one of those awkward stranger hugs where you’re hoping to not have any more physical contact than absolutely necessary, but an actual, meaningful hug.
“You got this. You’re almost done. You’ll be okay.”
I left the bathroom smiling through my reddened face, and didn’t return back to the classroom until 5 minutes before the bell. I ended up dropping the class the next day and saving myself a whole lot of unnecessary stress.
Often times I think about how brave that grade nine girl was. If I was in her shoes – the first day of high school, I’d be keeping my nose down. But that girl stepped up, talked me down from an anxiety attack, and was a friend when I needed one. I never learned her name, and I don’t think I ever saw her again. But the fact that she reached out and helped me did not go unnoticed.
Those random acts of kindness really do matter.