The girl sat with sloped shoulders, picking at her cuticles. She was flanked by three empty chairs on each side of her, and she stared straight ahead at the wood of the empty table. She was overweight. With her bubblegum pink hair, black hoodie and acid wash jeans, she stood out among the tan skin, straight hair and Nike shorts of the other 3,000 girls at the Presbyterian convention.
And she was completely alone.
“That’s so sad to see.”
Grier was watching the girl with dark, sad eyes. The 38-year-old had become my mentor and my idol over the last two years, as we spent long days and nights planning a church convention for 5,000 Presbyterian youths. I glanced at Grier, then at the girl, then back to Grier. She was still walking towards the door of the dining hall, ready to grab a golf cart and let me drive her over to a burger joint for dinner.
I didn’t say anything. I turned around and walked toward the table. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw that Grier had stopped. She smiled at me, nodded and kept walking.
“Hi,” I said. The girl looked up at me. She wore the perplexed look of someone who had been wrenched from a particularly pleasant daydream. “I’m Julia. Mind if I sit with you?”
“Okay. I’m Katy — with a ‘y’.” I sat down next to her. Katy’s eyes were flitting from side to side. She obviously felt awkward. We shared a single silent moment.
“Not eating?” Katy shook her head.
“I’m not hungry. It’s too hot.” I surveyed her long pants and thick jacket.
“My friends are eating, though,” Katy added quickly. She seemed anxious to reassure me. “They’re coming in a little bit.”
I glanced around, unsure. This was a perfect moment for me to leave — I had done my Christian duty, I had made sure she had friends. Grier and Susan and all of the others would be waiting.
We talked for 15 minutes, at the most. Katy was from California, just outside of San Diego. She was on an accelerated track to graduate high school early and she wanted to be a surgeon’s assistant. She was a year older than me and loved to read poetry.
Her friends came — two girls, a boy and her youth leader. They introduced themselves and offered me some of their fries. I didn’t stay with them long enough to memorize any names. I excused myself, told Katy how happy I was to meet them and jogged back upstairs to meet Grier by the golf cart. She smiled at me when I greeted her and tossed me the keys.
“You did the right thing.”
Maybe I did. But at first, I didn’t feel like I had truly done what was right. Katy had friends. She had a good group of Christians who supported her and loved her, who she had been waiting for.
How condescending had I looked? I had assumed, based off of her weight and her clothing, that Katy didn’t have friends. I had bought into those stereotypes, but my actions had unveiled a wonderful, typical teenager who was remarkably similar to myself.
I beat myself up over that for a long time. Finally, I realized that I did in fact do the right thing because I didn’t leave Katy’s fate up to chance. I didn’t let assumptions keep her from having a friend, even if it was just for 15 minutes.
I didn’t see Katy again. I spent the next three days scanning the convention crowds for bubblegum pink hair.
Katy taught me something important: everyone is like her. Everyone has moments of solitude and exclusion, when they don’t have anyone with them. When you find someone in a moment like that, you have to help them. That help and friendship can be exactly what they need, even if it is only for 15 minutes.