My best friend, Emilia, taught me to always stay true to myself.
I met her on the first day of first grade, in the bustling highlighter-yellow hallway outside our classroom. Our backpack hooks were adjacent to each other, each with a laminated frog sticker above it displaying our names.
The rest of my classmates stood in a circle around her, giggling and staring at her without attempting to make their teasing discrete. After a few moments of confusion, I realized they were laughing at the pair of wire cat ears she wore on her head. By this age, it was agreed upon that wearing childish hats was ridiculous. And, in addition, it was mainly agreed upon that dogs were superior to cats.
I expected to find her hurt by their judgments. I expected her to take the ears off and shove them into the bottom of her kitten-shaped backpack, never to be seen again. Instead, she kept her head held high, unfazed by their teasing. I admired that their opinions meant nothing to her.
The next day I wore a matching pair of ears to school, the smile I shared with her was worth it.
Old Mr. Terrell, who always played his saxophone on the corner of the street, taught me about the power of music.
Every time I walked past him on my way from school to the library, I would pause on the sidewalk to listen to his music for a little while. Every time I stopped, I told myself I would only stay for one song, but I ended up standing mesmerized in the scorching sun for much longer than I would have expected.
His music drew me in, pulling a string tied around my heart. When I absorbed the notes flowing out of the instrument, I felt what he felt. Every time an upbeat tune skipped out of the bell of his saxophone, my whole body felt a little lighter. I felt the desire to dance to the music until the streets were dark and the moon was high in the sky.
And when he played the blues, I felt my eyes well up and it became hard to swallow. I felt the pain of a thousand different people who had suffered through a thousand different lifetimes.
When I first heard him play, I remember being amazed that only one song could make me feel that much. To this day, I’ll never forget the way music can tell a story that changes one’s life.
Terry, Emilia’s little brother, taught me that even the smallest actions make a big difference.
One fall day, when the three of us were walking home from school, he saved lives. The night before the sky had dumped its sorrows upon us, making the ground the consistency of soggy bread. Slimy, pink worms were wiggling their way across the sidewalk every few feet.
Each time we came across one, he would carry it across the concrete and set it in the grass on the other side. He never once flinched, even as they squirmed and flipped inside his cupped hands.
I remember asking him why he took the time to save each one. I reminded him that there were thousands of other streets just like this one, with thousands of other worms that wouldn’t be saved. I told him no matter how hard he tried, he would never be able to save enough to make a difference in the big picture.
What he told me in reply was simple, but I’ll remember the words for the rest of my life.
“It did make a difference,” he told me, “It made all the difference in the world to each of those worms.”
Since then, I have picked up every tiny bug I ever found on the sidewalk and taken it safely to the other side.
Ms. Lucinda, my english language arts teacher, taught me that words can change the world.
When I was in sixth grade, reading was by far my favorite subject. The entire day I looked forward to her class, where we would curl up in gigantic bean bag chairs while she read us tales of majestic worlds so different from our own.
I was always a restless student, the kind that believed subjects weren’t worth learning if they wouldn’t help me get a job later on in life. I never saw the point of history, it seemed useless to learn about things that had already happened. My goal in science was to memorize the answers and ace the test, not to learn the topic. It seemed pointless as well, unless you were planning on being some sort of biologist.
Ms. Lucinda made me see the point in everything she taught us. She made me crave learning. She made me believe that words won out over weapons.
In her class, I learned that my voice was the most powerful thing in the world.
Mr. Lofton, who owns the candy store down the street from my house, taught me that generosity pays off.
After my mother lost her job, money was tight around the house. Everything was the bare commodities; simple clothes and simple food. It had been months since I was treated to the luxury of candy.
When I passed by his shop after school, the smell of freshly baked cookies was wafting out onto the street. I peered in the frosty window, clearing a spot in the fog with my fingers so I could see inside. Rows and rows of all kinds of candy were on every shelf and table in the room.
I pushed open the shop door, setting off the bell hanging from the top. I decided I would only look around, I didn’t have enough money to spare to be able to buy anything. But by the third time I spotted something so delicious looking, the disappointment started sinking in.
Mr. Lofton, a tall, bearded man that wore colorful tophats wherever he went, made his way over to me from the front counter. He set one humongous hand on my shoulder, taking in the way I stared at the candy wishfully.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said, his voice deep and gentle, “You pick one thing from here to take home.”
“I’m sorry sir, I’m just looking,” I told him, dipping my head down to study the floorboard intently.
“Just this one time,” he replied, “You don’t have to pay, I have plenty.”
“Why?” I asked. I probably should have accepted the gesture and thanked him, but my curiosity overcame me. I didn’t understand why a complete stranger would offer me sweets when I had nothing to give him in return.
“It’s a small price to pay to see you happy,” he said simply.
To this day, I’ll always appreciate the small act of kindness he showed me.
Nothing ever tasted sweeter.
My Irish Terrier puppy, Apollo, taught me to be reliable.
Whenever I had a bad day, whenever nothing seemed to go my way, I knew that I could come home and bury my face deep in his wiry fur. He always listened when I talked to him, perking his ears up and staring intently at me with his large eyes.
After I had a long day, and was utterly exhausted, he sat in my lap and licked my face. I laughed as he barked, his breath smelling like peanut butter. I drew strength from him.
I could always count on him to be there for me.
Caroline, from my track team, taught me that the things I was most afraid of were the things most worth doing.
We both loved sprinting as fast as possible, our feet scrambling to keep up with the wind in our hair. We loved running because it brought out the adventurous parts of us. When we ran, we forgot about the past and the future, letting us focus only on the present.
Caroline wasn’t only daring when she ran, though, she lived her life just as boldly. Every new day, she made it her goal to try one thing she had never done before. She packed one day with more new experiences than some people have in a whole lifetime.
When I was with her, I truly lived through every moment.
Lea, my three year old cousin, taught me to believe in the impossible.
When summer days started getting a little cooler, and fall started to creep up on us, my family went camping in the mountains. We set up our tents in a small clearing where we could see miles in every direction.
The first night of the trip, Lea and I decided to lay out our sleeping bags in a pile of soft leaves. That night, we decided to sleep under the stars, with the full moon shining down on us.
The sky was a rich, dark blue, completely empty of clouds. As we lay on our backs, staring up at it, a streaking flash of light darted between the stationary stars. A shooting star.
Lea grabbed my hand in her small ones and shut her eyes tight. “Make a wish,” she whispered.
I remember laughing and squeezing her hand as the beam shot in front of us, casting light across the tops of the trees.
“Do you make a wish every time you see a shooting star?” I asked her.
“Of course,” she told me, “It might come true. My wishes have come true before.”
“What did you wish for?” I asked her.
“I can’t tell you,” she said as if it was obvious, “Saying it out loud ruins the magic.”
I closed my eyes after that and made my own silent but hopeful wish.
Since that day, I always ate the corner of my pie last, looked at the clock at 11:11, and picked up lost pennies.
But, most importantly, I made a wish for every shooting star I spotted.
My beloved aunt, Molly, taught me to be unfailingly kind.
She didn’t have a carefree life, none of my family did, but she was always a beam of light in the darkness. Whenever I needed to talk to someone about something, she was there to listen. She was always ready to drop everything and run to my side, to be there for me.
She was selfless, she thought about everyone’s needs first and foremost before even considering her own. She was loyal, ready to support her friends and family on each of their own individual journeys.
But what I most admired about her was the way she never let the shadows of her life change her. When the world pushed her down, when nothing seemed to go her way, she learned from her mistakes. She only let the struggles make her wiser.
She knew how it felt to be completely and utterly alone, and because of that, she was a friend to everyone.
And because of all that she had been through, all the tears she had shed, she always smiled the brightest.
Lastly Adella, the girl next door, taught me to carry invincible joy wherever I went.
Every time the sky opened up and buckets of water poured down upon us, I watched her from my bedroom window. She would go outside in only a t-shirt and shorts, and she would dance in the rain.
Her bare feet would slap against the puddles on the stone, creating a raw, beautiful rhythm. She would beam up at the sky, never letting the clouds bring down her spirit. The rain would run down her slippery skin in thick streams, right into her smiling mouth. Her hair would flow out behind her, like a mermaid.
I loved the beauty she showed from within. I wanted to be like her, completely in control of my life.
I admired her because she was free.
Each of these people made me the person I am today. They taught me priceless lessons I will carry with me until the day I die.
Their stories taught me to never lose hope.