Piggy and I are going to take our annual short break. Running BGR is always hard work, but this has been one for the record books! We’ve absorbed a lot of confusion, panic, and sadness through our inboxes this year. So we’re going to do our best to unplug and mentally refresh ourselves with a nice long vacation.
… Hahaha psych! We’re gonna use that time to catch up on tedious admin work. If anyone tells you blogging is an easy way to get rich quick, kindly punch them in the chest. Aim for the heart.
It’s been a helluva year, y’all. I wanted to leave you with a story to contemplate over the holiday. Given how shitty everything has been, I felt compelled to make it a happy one. Or at least a hopeful one. In fact, I’m gonna give you the most hopeful story I’ve got.
Today I’m going to tell you about a person who changed my life.
It’s a true story about how our everyday actions have wider and deeper impacts than we can ever know. It’s a little star that’s always helped guide me, especially in moments of personal cynicism and despair. When I feel powerless, it reminds me I’m not. As we face a winter that feels magnitudes longer, darker, and more isolated than usual, I thought everyone could use a story like this.
I met the person who changed my life… when I was twelve years old.
It was my first day at a new school. I was terrified.
See, the Kitty you know now is very different from the Kitty in this story. If you know me now, you’d probably describe me with a bunch of synonyms for “confident.” And that’s so! I feel utterly defined by my confidence. Perhaps that’s because I remember the person I was before I was given permission to be confident. And she’s unrecognizable to me.
Have you ever heard the proverb “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down”? It’s a decent summary of my early years.
I grew up in a tiny midwestern town. I can’t overstate how homogenous of an environment it was. Everyone was exactly like everyone else (and if they weren’t, adults and children alike would bully them to deflect attention from their perceived shortcomings). Although I was privileged in many ways, readers, I gotta tell ya: I was a very unhappy child.
I went to the same tiny private religious school for six years with the same twenty boys and twenty girls, each full of learned viciousness. We swam around like fish in an overcrowded aquarium fed just enough not to eat each other alive. It was an environment of ceaseless, relentless, cyclical bullying.
I feel a little silly talking about it now. It boils down to “some kids in Peter Pan collars and plaid jumpers acted super whack to me.” Still, it definitely had a lasting impact.
The children were all incredibly focused on self-policing nonconformity. If you violated the invisible social hierarchy in any way, the punishment was coordinated social isolation. The other students would pretend they couldn’t see or hear you; they’d turn their backs to you if you spoke. If you tried to approach them, they’d walk (or run) away. We called it “Ignoring.”
The rules we enforced were specific and bizarre. I once felt sick in class, so I leaned over and rested my head against an empty chair. This was an infraction so audacious that everyone was talking about it by day’s end. My mother heard about it by the time I got home. My classmates pretended I didn’t exist for two weeks.
Sounds like I left some crucial part out, right? I know. In this intensely insular group, it was the norm to spy on each other, pouncing on anything we could use to bolster our standing. To this day, I have flashbacks when I see nature documentaries of monkeys being assholes to each other.
Ignoring was an effective torment. And we had incredible stamina. Serious infractions could earn months or years of silence. At my birthday parties, attendees made pacts to pretend they hadn’t come. My closest friends went through periods of playing with me only in secret, outside of school, so my Ignoring wouldn’t spread to them.
In this environment, conformity was the highest virtue and best armor. And—spoiler!—turns out I’m pretty bad at conforming.
I can’t say exactly what it was about me that screamed “this does not belong,” but whatever it was, everyone could easily see it.
I scrunched up my personality and twisted it into pleasing shapes. I pretended to be timid, obsequious, vapid, hunting for the right combination that would make me worthy of affection. But it was so obviously false that I dwelt in the Uncanny Valley of personalities: an insufferably abnormal person creepily pantomiming a normality she didn’t understand.
For a while, I coped by becoming extra religious, because hey—when you don’t have any friends, a deity can make a kick-ass substitute! Church was the only place where I felt my existence was fundamentally affirmed. God
made me in His divine character creation screen knit me in my mother’s womb, right? And Peter or one’a them was always going on about how suffering was evidence of moral superiority. So the churchy stuff really landed with me!
But the bullying got more and more serious, and eventually my parents gave me the option to switch schools. My parents were gearing up for a divorce at the time. So who knows—maybe money drove the decision more than my unhappiness.
In any case, I embraced change with a bleak kind of eagerness. Leaving my insular community was daunting. But at that point, it was better the devil I didn’t know.
My first day at the new school was very weighty. I knew no one there—not one person.
You’ll laugh, but as I tried to find my way around that day, I honestly felt terrified of the other kids. I was eager to learn this school’s hierarchy so I could integrate myself. But there didn’t seem to be one.
They roamed the halls in belly shirts and styled hair, cackling loudly at last year’s inside jokes, hanging off each other in large, affectionate packs. Many of them weren’t white or upper-middle-class, and didn’t speak or act like it was a priority to imitate whiteness or upper-middle-classness. It all made me want to shrink from them. I felt hopelessly incapable of imitating them. It was my first time out of a uniform, for fuck’s sake! These people were cool in ways I had only seen teenagers on television be cool.
I kept my eyes from meeting anyone else’s, not saying a word in my first three periods. No one said a word to me either.
I didn’t know where the cafeteria was, but I followed the flow of the other students at lunchtime. When I rounded the corner, I froze in horror.
Lunch at my old school was served at one long table, with assigned seating for each grade. Even if no one liked you, you still sat with everyone.
But at my new school, there were dozens of small round tables. Students informally pulled chairs up wherever they pleased. Each table seemed to be dominated by a different clique, and they all knew exactly where to find their people.
As I stood frozen in the doorway, I felt a fatalistic sureness about what was going to happen next. I’d go through the lunch line alone and exit it alone. Bullying trained me to fear the punishment that came from social presumption; I couldn’t possibly ask to sit at someone’s table.
So I would withdraw. I would pick an empty table, and sit alone. I would read a textbook, pretending to find it fascinating. Tomorrow I would come prepared with a proper novel—because obviously if I sat alone on the first day, I would always sit alone. The bullies were right: something inside me was dangerous, wrong, and unloveable. The faster I could accept my identity as The Girl Who Sits Alone, the less troubled I would be.
I got into line pinching back tears, feeling like I was marching toward my doom.
I felt someone tap their lunch tray against my back. Assuming it was an accidental jostle, I kept my eyes forward. But then it happened again. Tap, tap.
I turned to see… hmm. How do I describe her?
Do you remember The Craft? Yeah—like that. Big The Craft energy. A thirteen-year-old girl who seemed, to my eyes, an impossibly mature woman. Black lipstick. Dangling pentagram earrings. Long, long hair dyed deep scarlet red. Impossibly tall, at least seven feet. A pale, beautiful face wearing an expression that terrified me: cold, indifferent teenaged edgelord coolness.
I honestly have no idea if that’s actually what this girl looked like, or if that’s just what she looked like to my eyes so unaccustomed to seeing anyone like her. Was her lipstick really black? Maybe it just seemed that way because it was my first encounter with a fashion-forward 90s matte brown lip. Obviously she couldn’t have actually been seven feet tall. She was just the sort of person who seemed like she should be.
“Hey,” she said. “Are you new here?”
“Yeah,” I said. It was the first word I’d said all day. I was thankful my voice didn’t crack from disuse.
“What’s your name?”
“Lauren.” (That’s right, y’all, this story is intimate af, we’re past the point of pseudonyms.)
“Cool. I’m Eliza.” The line inched forward. She didn’t say anything else, so I awkwardly hung between turning toward her and away. Just as I decided our conversation was over, she spoke again.
“Do you have any friends that go here? Do you have someone to sit with?”
My heart started to pound. “Not really, no.”
“Mm.” She nodded, looking not at me but into a middle distance that cool people can gaze into upon command. “Well, you can come and sit with me if you want.”
How can I describe the way I felt in that moment?
Have you ever been stuck inside an awful nightmare? And there’s a moment where you’re still in the logic of the dream, being chased or attacked—and then you suddenly realize that you’re dreaming? And an intense wave of pure, joyful relief washes over you as the terrifying, inescapable experience suddenly becomes optional? That was how it felt.
My heart soared. Because I had someone to sit with.
In that fragile moment of my life, it meant hope. Hope that my life could be different and better, that I could find acceptance.
Obviously she had to be as friendless and desperate as I was, to extend such an invitation to a total stranger. But it didn’t matter. I would’ve taken any life preserver, whether from a luxury cruise ship or a raft made out of paper towel tubes and bailing twine. I was so tired of being alone.
I followed her like a puppy. I thought we’d make for an empty table… but she beelined for a crowded one at the back. As we approached, everyone at the table turned and erupted with a delighted shout. “ELIZA!” A dozen people jumped up to hug her, high-five her, ask how her summer was. I hung back, overwhelmed, until Eliza pulled me forward.
“Guys, this is Lauren. She’s new, so be nice to her.”
Then she flapped her hands at the crowded table, demanding that space be made. There was barely enough room for two, so I ended up halfway on her lap. I ate my lunch that way, absorbing the names and faces and stories of the raucous group around me, feeding off their warmth, feeling my defensive reticence soften and melt.
Eliza, as it turns out, was far from desperate and lonely. She was the reigning queen of the Miscellaneous: goths and wiccans, bisexuals, artists, trailer trash, pot heads, poets, and mini-geniuses taking accelerated courses. Her power derived from being a zesty combination of many of those traits herself, but also from a wellspring of natural charisma and leadership.
She told them to be nice to me, and they were. For the first time in my short life, I felt enthusiastically welcomed.
A few days later, I was approached by a girl named Erin. It turns out we’d been in some ballet class together as children and my mother had asked her mother to check on me.
She was a nice, polite midwestern girl, and she ran with a modestly popular crowd. After some chit-chat, she lowered her voice. “Are you hanging out with Eliza?”
I brightened. “Yes! She’s soooo nice.”
Erin sighed and shook her head. “Be really careful around her. I don’t hang out with her personally, but I’ve heard all sorts of things.”
My smile faded. “Oh?”
“Yeah. I’ve heard she starts fights on the bus, and smokes pot, and has sex with random people. Including other women.” Erin looked meaningfully at me. “She might seem like she’s being nice, but it’s probably because she wants something from you. I saw her with you the other day—making you sit on her lap like that. That’s kinda disgusting. No offense but you seem kinda naive—so it just makes me mad she’d take advantage of you like that.”
She leaned back and raised her voice again. “You can come and sit at my table today,” she said with a smile. There was no small amount of pity in her eyes. “I’ll introduce you to the right kind of people.”
The “right” kind of people
My external circumstances changed drastically the moment Eliza invited me to her table. But internally, after this conversation with Erin, something clicked in my brain that could never be unclicked. (Unclucked? Unclacked!)
I know what Erin meant when she said she could introduce me to “the right kind of people.” White midwestern Christians, straightlaced and well-behaved, attempting to pass for upper-class by way of Abercrombie shirts. The kind of people I had always tried to impress, hoping that a little bit of their acceptedness would rub off on me.
Eliza, on the other hand, was everything I was warned (explicitly and implicitly) I shouldn’t want in a friend. Everything about her loudly announced her individuality and disinterest in conformity. She was shamelessly, alarmingly different from everybody else.
But when I was at my most vulnerable, that first day in the lunch line, “the right kind” of students had all looked right through me. Not necessarily in a mean way—they were just too busy with their own lives to stop and introduce themselves to a stranger. No one had any way of knowing that the quiet girl standing in the lunch line was locked in a silent crisis, feeling like she was losing both her hope and her sense of self.
Eliza was the only one who looked at me instead of through me. Unlike Erin, she’d offered me empathy and extended her friendship easily, without conditions or prompting. It was a small act of capricious kindness, but it forever changed my life for the better. She showed me with perfect clarity that there is no correlation between propriety and true kindness. It was the permission I needed to stop stuffing myself inside the cage of other people’s expectations.
It also made me aware of the ways in which I judged people. I was an uptight asshole, by nurture if not nature. I spent the rest of that year learning to unclench myself.
Unfortunately, before the school year was finished, Eliza moved away. But the coalition she built held fast. I ate lunch with the Miscellaneous that day, and many other days. They became my core friend group, but emboldened me to explore. I summered with the Nerds and wintered with the Popular Black Girls, but always came back home before the street lights came on.
I was only at that school for one year. My parents divorced and I moved away. This was long before the age of social media. There was no way to stay in touch. But I carried the lessons I’d learned forward. “Be somebody’s Eliza” became a mantra I repeated privately to myself, to give myself courage to forge new relationships without expectation of reciprocity or fear of rejection.
Many, many years afterward, I got a late night email from a friend. He was working on an HIV/AIDS program in Tanzania, and he was utterly exhausted, ready to quit, be done, pack it up, and come home months early. He said he was frustrated because for all the time he spent, he felt sure that he wasn’t truly helping anyone, and nothing he did really mattered.
So I wrote back to him, and told him the story of Eliza. I reminded him that people are opaque. You can’t know what’s troubling them, and what they most need to hear in any given moment. Sometimes it’s something said briefly, casually, that sinks into them forever, like a perfect and unrepeatable hole-in-one. The story inspired him to stick it out.
But articulating it made me realize that I wanted Eliza herself to hear it. I couldn’t remember her surname, so tracking her down was really hard. I had to build a chain of contacts with other students from that year. One remembered how it was pronounced, but not spelled; another remembered how it was spelled once she was reminded how it was pronounced. I explained my story to each of them, and they were all deeply moved by it, sharing their own hidden troubles and memories from that time and beyond.
Finally, I managed to find Eliza’s email address. After confirming it was her, I poured out my story. Which was really her story. I spent hours unsuccessfully trying to edit the stalker vibe out of it, before shrugging and impulsively hitting “send.”
She wrote back. Here’s a small piece of what she said.
This was a letter I never thought I would receive. It’s hard to imagine ever having any impression on anyone’s life at that time. I am glad I made one on yours.
The funny thing about this situation is that, if you recall, I was not actually at that school for very long after we met. My mother pulled me out for exactly the same reason you were taken out of your previous school. I was getting bullied and beat up on the bus, and the administration said that I was kind of asking for it because I was such a strange kid. I don’t have a lot of good memories of that time. I was often terrified to go to school, despite my tough girl persona back then. Getting your letter made me look back on it in a different way. I am extremely glad that I made a difference in someone else’s life there. For a long time I thought I made no more impression on anyone there other than a few bruised knuckles.
In the last few months my life has turned upside down. I’ve had to sit down and look back on my existence and find a way to make sense of it all. I’ll say one thing for sure: I don’t think I could have been pointed in the right direction without your letter. I feel like I can finally close the door to that part of my life without cowering from it. I wasn’t the bad kid that all my teachers thought I was. I looked the part, but I did at least do one good thing back then that I can be proud of, small as it may have been. There’s something about knowing that that finally sets that part of my mind at ease. So really I should be thanking you.
Ok, enough reminiscing. There’s a lot of reasons I love this story. Obviously partially because it gets an A+ in cliché trope appeal. (Cool freaks rule, boring preps drool? SEEN IT.) But what I love most is that it breaks the laws of kindness physics.
(Sad Kid + Bullying) + (Sad Kid + Bullying) x (Random Act of Small Kindness) = Emotional Healing For Like Six Adults and Possibly Fewer People with AIDS?
That math shouldn’t work. But it did.
Here’s what I hope you, dear readers, will take away from my story.
Changing someone’s life is a tall order. People are most ready to change when they’re at their most vulnerable. But people at their most vulnerable don’t usually announce “HELLO. I AM EXTREMELY VULNERABLE. HOW ‘BOUT YOU?” The right act of charity, or cruelty, or indifference in one of these moments can cause an unpredictable, life-altering cascade of events.
When so much in the world feels broken, I feel driven to help instigate change. BIG change. Like, NOW.
But moments like that—moments where other people are desperate and laid bare—are mutable windows. The governance of those windows belongs to no one. Not to you, or to the people you want to change. It is pure, random chance. Like trying to time the market, it’s foolish and just a bit arrogant.
Changing someone’s life is lightning striking. It’s a perfect bullseye thrown while blindfolded and half-drunk. You can’t quest after that. If that’s the standard to which you hold yourself, you will break.
And that’s good news, because it means you don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be yourself.
You don’t have to be kind and brave and righteous all the time. Do it when you have the inclination, opportunity, and energy for it. You don’t have to be happy to spread happiness, or feel brave to act with bravery. Sharing your power may feel meaningless when you’re the second-least powerful person in the room—but it matters so much to the person you share it with, the one and only person who has even less. Be generous, but don’t give yourself away. You don’t have to. When the moment is right, change will come with the tiniest of nudges.
You may never know what your actions mean to others. Like me, it may take years of introspection for the recipient to realize the momentousness of a fateful moment. It’s not unrealistic to think that you may have been somebody’s Eliza a hundred times over, completely changing their life for the better after some brief and inconsequential interaction. You may never know about it.
Eliza’s tiny act of kindness helped me directly. But it also helped so many more people indirectly. And I kinda hope that in the end, the person Eliza helped the most… was Eliza.
So that’s it. We hope all of our readers have a happy and safe winter holiday. If it’s a sucky and scary and lonely one, I hope at least I’ve brought you some warm thoughts to mull over a cold winter.
Readers, tell me about your Elizas. Has a chance encounter ever changed the course of your life for the better? If so, please share your stories in the comments below. Fun fact: Fiona Apple has a song about her Eliza on her most recent album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Happy to report that it slaps.
Also! Piggy and I have decided to send a slice of our donors’ generosity back out into the world. Patreon donors are voting now on what kind of charitable gift they’d like for us to make at the end of the year. We’ll keep the poll open until midnight on New Year’s Eve, so you still have time to join us and weigh in! We’re just 41 patrons shy of our total goal.
And, ahem… Patreon donors may be getting another present in their nondenominational stocking. Maybe. Can’t share the details. But take my word for it: December is going to be a great month to be a BGR supporter!