We have all done things in life that we regret and are not proud of. I am no exception. Sometimes you get a do over -- and sometimes you don't.
In ninth grade, I knew a boy named Gabriel*. He was one of my best friends and the gentlest boy I knew. I entered high school not knowing a soul, while most of my classmates had known each other for years. I doubt that any of them had ever encountered a deaf person, and I felt like an outcast. Gabriel was my port in the storm. Not only did he accept my deafness, but he embraced it and did whatever he could to help me. Amidst the cafeteria clamor, he always repeated what others said for me even when I pretended to understand. During morning meeting, he would sit next to me and use the few signs I taught him to interpret for me. He treated me with kindness, decency, and respect, and I reciprocated. I was eternally grateful and I hoped we would continue being friends.
But after ninth grade, he suddenly left school and went completely off the grid: he deleted his Facebook page and cut off all communications with me. It seemed like he had fallen off the face of the Earth and did not want to be found. So I tucked away my memories of him that only surfaced every once in a while like they often do with old friends. And then, just as suddenly as he left school, I learned the truth.
About a year ago, I logged onto Facebook and saw a Facebook friend request from a girl. I did not recognize her at first, but there was something familiar about her. After staring at her Facebook pictures for ten minutes, it finally hit me like a ton of bricks: it was Gabriel. Except he was now Gabriella*, and she told me her story.
As Gabriel, she was a frequent victim of bullying and sexual abuse -- from being the target of homophobic slurs to finding dildos stuffed in her locker. During the time we were friends, she suffered from severe depression and was in a lot of emotional pain. She tried to hide it beneath a cheerful façade. I sensed something was amiss, but I did not know the half of her pain and suffering. How could I have been so clueless?
The truth is I never took the time to dig deeper with her, even though I knew she was being bullied because she was "different." I never made fun of her, but I did not defend her either. Intellectually I knew it was the right thing to do, but emotionally I could not bring myself to do it. At times I overheard some of my classmates ridicule her, but I remained silent on the sideline. I sometimes saw mean comments that my classmates wrote about her over Facebook, but I never once responded to stand up for her. It was a classic case of conforming to peer pressure. I was so consumed with my own struggles with being Deaf and gay that I could not look outside myself. Like most high school students, I was convinced that my problems were worse than everybody else's.
For the rest of my time in high school, I learned how to take more of an interest in others and how to stand up for what I believed was right -- perhaps, subconsciously, I was overcompensating for my guilt over Gabriella. I volunteered at Maryland School for the Deaf as a camp counselor. Another summer I interpreted for two deaf girls at their day camp. At graduation, in fact, I received the Citizenship Award. But my conscience bothered me every time I looked back on my experience with Gabriella and thought about what that award really means -- to help others in need and to treat everybody with respect.
However, over the past year I have tried very hard to redeem myself with Gabriella. I became her confidante and she has told me many times that I have been a source of great comfort and advice in helping her deal with the trials and tribulations that come with being a woman. The lessons I have learned from my experience with her have made me a better person and a better friend. Many of my college friends come to me when they have problems and want advice. Even if I'm overwhelmed with schoolwork, I gladly sacrifice my time to help them. My experience with Gabriella has also reaffirmed my interest in becoming a psychologist specializing in relationship and adjustment counseling and serving LGBT people. And for me it has confirmed the conclusion of studies that have been done on happiness: helping others really is one of the keys to attaining happiness.
I tell people to never assume what is going on in other people's lives when we see them every day but do not take the time to really get to know the person inside. I could have helped Gabriella more had I looked below the surface and been less inwardly focused, and she probably would have been able to help me, too.
So for all of you who have made it to the end of my confession, I offer this takeaway: reach out to people to whom you normally would not. You might be surprised. They might teach you something about life and, if you are lucky, teach you as much as Gabriella has taught me.
* For personal reasons, my friend has decided to remain anonymous, so these names are aliases.