I am 12 years old and I’m watching a classmate spit pie into a stranger’s hand.
I’ve just entered the 7th grade in the largest school I have ever attended. Grades 7-12 in the same 1950s era building. While I am technically in Junior High there is nothing junior about this experience. The scale of my education is instantly massive.
Entering the streams of humanity flowing through the green bricked hallways is exhilarating and nerve-wracking. Everything is new and unfamiliar and I want to be a part of all of it. To join clubs, to go to sporting events, to meet girls.
I want to meet all the girls.
Early on in Freshman year, the school announces a night of competitive silly games in the school gym for the 7th, 8th, and 9th grades. The event is facilitated by 11th and 12th graders, kids from the top of the food chain. Of course, I attend.
There are obstacle courses, a suitcase relay which involves dressing up in oversized clothes, and the pinnacle of the night: a pie eating contest.
A black garbage bag with head and arm holes poked in it is placed over a pie eating volunteer from each grade to protect them from the mess they are about to make. Each participant stands behind a long table with a pudding pie on it. They put their hands behind their backs, and when the judge yells go, they bend at the waist and thrust their faces into the pies.
It’s hilarious and gross. The screams of new teens in the bleachers bounce around the cavernous rafters of the gym. Pudding is everywhere, more so on the table than in mouths. The screaming continues. The eating slows. Eventually, the judge calls time and the pie eaters return to vertical, their faces a result of great effort if not great success.
Cheering is heard. Towels come out. The judges evaluate. But one kid is still chewing, clearly trying to swallow a glob of pudding and pie crust that no doubt feels inconsumable at this point.
One of the older girls running the event is talking to him. She is holding her hands under his mouth and telling the pie eater to just spit whatever is left in his mouth into her hands. He’s shaking his head no. She persists. Just spit it out. You’re going to choke. Just spit it out.
And he does.
A gooey lump of half-masticated chocolate pudding pie drops into her bare, ungloved hands.
She instantly becomes the most beautiful human being I have ever seen in my young life.
She takes it to the garbage can and throws it out. No gross-out face. No self-preservation. Just compassion for somebody else. Just part of the job.
I’m 15 years old and I’m holding the hand of a girl I’ve never met while crying uncontrollably.
I am at my first retreat in the mountains of North Carolina for an organization that will change my life. Three hundred members of this organization ages 14 to 80 are here for two days of bonding, inspiration, and what is formally known as Boundary Breaking.
I am into all of it. Pulled through it all as though by an invisible string I don’t resist. It is everything I am realizing I love. The changing leaves, instant new friends, pretty girls, and a kind of awakening to something much larger than myself.
Each night ends with Boundary Breaking. My group of 12 sits in a circle and takes turns answering the same profound questions about life.
I have never been asked these questions before. Not only have I never answered them but many I have never even considered. The exercise is alarming in its emotional impact. It disarms many. It absolutely deconstructs me.
While sitting on the floor of this beautiful balcony deck, in this circle of multi-generational strangers from around the country, talking about what I am most afraid of, the tears flow like they haven’t in some time.
And in that moment, the person I am sitting next to, a girl with short brown hair from New Jersey who I know is just a little bit older than me, laces her fingers through mine and holds my hand while I sob through my story of newly shared feelings.
I am overcome with comfort and warmth. It is surreal how natural it feels.
When our circle is over and the lights come on, and our little pocket of safety and vulnerability seals itself away, I look into the big brown eyes of this girl from New Jersey and hug her tightly, thanking her. And whatever she says is echoed by those big brown eyes that say “of course.”
But I hadn’t expected “of course.” I did not know you could comfort a stranger like that, simply take their hand and hold it. Acknowledge their pain, fear, loss, or longing. And just be with them.
Acceptance of vulnerability was so immediate in that world.
I am 26 years old and my cab driver is parked outside my apartment building refusing to accept my money.
Sometime after 1 AM on a Saturday night, I hail a cab. The driver asks me where I’m going and I tell him. He motions to get in, and once I do he says something about his home, mentions stopping on the way. The fact I have been drinking, plus his accent and the bulletproof acrylic divider make it hard to hear so I just sit back, grateful he didn’t drive away, as many cabbies do when I tell them I am going to Queens.
I tilt my head back and let my eyes gently close. They flutter open intermittently. Suddenly, we are parked outside a hospital in a part of the city I do not know and couldn’t find my way back to. Perpetually short tempered with cab drivers because of the aforementioned abandonment issues, plus my fear they are always trying to rip me off, I am instantly alert and angry.
I ask him why we are stopped. He tells me we are picking up his wife. Ignoring that for a moment my eyes turn to the meter which continues to run. I tell him he needs to stop the meter because that seems like an argument I can win. Intoxication is preventing me from trying to persuade my cab driver to abandon his wife.
My cab driver seems unconcerned with my frustrations and just keeps waving at the ticking meter as if to say, oh don’t worry about it. But I am worried about it. Very much so. I am still young and inexperienced and thus unsure of which scenarios are strange and which are flat out wrong.
Eventually, his wife comes out of the hospital. And I sit back in the seat, baffled, as a cab driver and his wife drive me home like some sort of one-time adoptive parents.
We arrive at my apartment and I go to pay but the cab driver refuses. What was confusing before is now audibly and mentally clear. He was on his way home when he saw me. He lives nearby. There is no charge.
I feel terrible.
Presuming I was being ripped off and taken advantage of I had taken my prior anger and redirected it at yet another cab driver when all he wanted to do was give me a ride home. The meter says 40 dollars but the price is free.
I thank him repeatedly and walk into my apartment building. The undeserving recipient of a generous act.
Three strangers. Three seemingly disparate moments. The same common and unwavering commitment to kindness. No questions or hesitation, simply action. A unilateral decision by one person to do something for another.
It all still amazes me to this day.
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