I was fourteen years old and had barely learned to speak English. I had moved to a suburb of Chicago from Mexico City only a month before beginning high school. My parents were working hard to provide and to help us adjust to our new country, where I felt amazed by the abundance of fruit. Up to that point, the simple pleasure of fruit, this basic nourishment, had been a precious and scarce commodity. I felt unsure of how to embrace this new, fruitful life. I felt weird, out of place. I understood that I did not fit in.
I remember walking into my chemistry class and seeing a group of six or seven guys yelling in the corner of the room. As I got closer to my seat, the voices got louder and did not seem friendly.
In the classroom, I saw that the group of guys was surrounding another classmate, a boy named Jeff. We were not friends, but he was someone I had noticed.
Jeff’s face was disfigured because of a birth defect. The guys may have looked at him and thought that his mouth was crooked, that his teeth were oddly spaced, or his nose was misshapen, and his forehead was too broad. But I saw a human being, no more and no less flawed than any of us is. And in that moment, his eyes, narrowed above his soft, round cheeks, were wet with tears. Jeff was crying and telling them to stop, but this only encouraged their bullying.
Despite my outgoing nature, in this new country, I was deeply afraid to speak. When I had tried, I had been teased. So I am not sure where I found the strength or the English, but I yelled, “Leave him alone, now!”
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The room got quiet. All of these bigger guys, who seemed to me like mountains, were staring at me. At me. The small girl who wore her brother’s oversized, hand-me-down T-shirts. The girl who was terrified to speak—the girl who kept quiet.
For a moment, I was frightened. I thought they were going to come after me. But instead, they stopped bullying Jeff and walked away.
I was called to the principal’s office to receive recognition for my bravery, and Jeff’s mom was notified. When an announcement was made over the intercom, the entire school knew about how this foreign girl who did not fit in stood up for one of her classmates. The guys never bothered Jeff again.
To show me his appreciation, Jeff wrote a song called “Beautiful.” He composed the music himself and played it for me on his guitar. No one had ever written a song about me, and the title meant so much to me. Until then, in those first months in the United States, my self-esteem had been buried beneath my brother’s big T-shirts and my silence.
Compassion begets compassion; it is reciprocal and inherently generative. When Jeff offered me his gratitude, he helped me just as I had helped him. We both became stronger people.
We move mountains if we have enough conviction to let our compassion be known in the world.