I was in fourth grade, and I was terrified. It was coming up on Christmas and everyone was supposed to exchange gifts. My family was poor. Dirt poor. And worse yet, we kids were pretty neglected and often hungry.
How bad was it? Well, I was wearing hand-me-down clothes. Not from a big sister or a cousin though. I had to wear my brother’s clothes. Suffice to say that I got bullied a lot. A skinny kid with tangled hair, always hanging out at the edge, wishing I knew how to fit in.
To me, this was it. My chance to show that I was cool. Maybe giving a good gift would earn me a friend. But how was I going to get a gift to give? I was a bundle of nerves when I asked my mom about it.
She sighed and said that she would try to get me something. Mom was really a very kind soul, living with our father, a two-timing, ego driven mass of anger who walked around looking for a reason to explode.
Mom came through for me though. She probably saved for weeks to get something for me. No kidding about that. There were times when all we had to eat was bread with a little sugar on it -so this was a big deal.
However she did it, she found it. The perfect gift. It was a yellow mirror, formed into the shape of a flower. I loved it. I did not ever get to have girly things and this was just so bright and pretty.
We carefully wrapped it in rather banged up and well worn wrapping paper. I huddled with it on the bus, carrying it close to my chest all the way to school- worried that I might drop it.
I didn’t. I carried it proudly into class and sat it on the teacher’s desk. She was going to give them all out at break. Each gift was chosen randomly so that everyone got one and no one knew who gave what.
It was hard to sit there. I fidgeted all morning. The minutes drug by until, at last, Mrs. Evans held up her hand for silence. The room fell quiet and she smiled as she handed out the gifts. I watched to see who would get my gift.
And guess what. It went to the most popular girl in class, Mary. Mary was so pretty. I wanted to be just like her. Her hair always looked nice and she smelled good too. I got a gift too, but barely noticed it as I was holding my breath to see how much she loved my special mirror.
Mary tore the package open greedily and the smile instantly slid off of her face. “Mrs. Evans”, she whined, ” I got something ugly.” She emphasized the word “ugly” so it sounded like ugh-huh-lee. I tried to hide in my desk.
The class laughed. Mrs. Evans told her that she should be gracious, but she kept on complaining. She rolled her eyes and said that only a poor person would ruin it by giving something so hideous. ( I was not sure what hideous meant, but it did not sound nice.)
My eyes flooded with hot tears. Everyone looked around to see who would dare bring something so terrible to class. The other kids snickered and looked at me. Mrs. Evans called the class to order and the day resumed. It was all a blur for me though.
So much so that when went to lunch and I realized I had forgotten to open my present. Sitting by myself, I unwrapped it and saw something I really wanted. It was a watch with a delicate pink band. It was a girl’s watch! For a moment I forgot to be miserable.
We went back to class and I felt better. Just before the end of the day though, Mrs. Evans was called out of the room. She asked that we sit quietly until she returned. While she was gone, it happened. Mary started making fun of me.
Flouncing over to my desk, she held the ‘ugly mirror’ and started pantomiming that she was putting on makeup. She said that only a really ugly person would need a mirror like that. The class burst into giggles and fits of laughter.
Then she demanded to know what I had gotten. I could not speak, but showed her the watch, holding out my arm. Amanda spoke up and said that her mom had bought the watch and she wanted it to go to Mary.
She also suggested that Mary give me back my mirror. I handed over the watch and Mary left the mirror on my desk. At some point, Mary must have given it a pretty good smack because it now had a crack down the center.
Mrs. Evans returned and the day resumed. I did not hear the lesson though, as I was lost in a fog of shame. I threw the mirror into a ditch when I got off the bus.
At this point, you may be wondering how this saved me. Well, I will tell you. When I was in bed that night, my mom came into the room and asked me how my day went. I lied. I told her that everyone loved my gift. She was pleased. her careworn face creased in a smile and she said something, something quite profound that has never left me.
She said, “That’s wonderful honey. Everybody needs to feel good about something. Maybe you made a friend” That was it. For some reason, when she said it, the word “made” stood out.
Could you ‘make’ a friend? Maybe you could. Maybe if somebody was scared, or lonely or even ugly like me, I could ‘make’ a friend. A light-bulb went off inside of me. Laying there, in the darkness, I thought about how Mary made me feel.
I thought about how I could, someday, ‘make’ somebody else feel good too. It made me a bit warmer. Even though it hurt, I promised myself that I would never be like Mary. I wanted to be different. I would “make” friends because I would be able to see how they felt inside.
It may sound crazy, but in my mind, it clicked -like tumblers in a lock- suddenly falling into place. Opening the locked vault of human kindness inside of me.
Now, years later, I can look back and see that Mary did me a favor. She did not do it on purpose, yet she taught me a valuable lesson. What was it?
She taught me how not to be. She taught me that people have power and that the names we assign have meaning. She taught me that people have value even when they are not pretty or popular.
She taught me the value of kindness and compassion. In other words, she became the mirror, and so did I.
We, all of us, are mirrors. We reflect out that which is already inside of us.
PS. True story. Now go and reflect something beautiful.