“He may have looked old and tacky to you. But you don’t know the sweetness of him, the confidence he can give to birds and brats and fragile things like that. Anyone who ever gave you confidence, you owe them a lot.”
– Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

 

Whenever I go to the doctor’s office, I stare at the fish tank until they call my name. Among the many, many fish in this tall tank, there is one red fish that always stays by itself in the corner. Every single day.

When I was little, I felt like a fish out of water. This seems to be a common sentiment among writers and artists, but unfortunately, I didn’t know that when I was going through it.

In elementary school, I skipped a grade, so I went from vaguely knowing the names of people in my class to not even that. Making friends seemed an impossibility. When I look back at the beginning of that year, I remember going to the school library every day during recess and lunch.

My school library was a closet-like room that could not have been bigger than eight feet by eight feet. The shelves were stocked with well-worn classics like Black Beauty by Anna Sewell as well as obscure books for children by long-forgotten authors (that today you might find on a used book table in a flea market). I would read them all.

Every day I would sit cross-legged on the floor less than a foot away from Mrs. Ponder, the school librarian. Every single day I sat, a foot’s kick away, and I never spoke a word to her. Not even when she would stamp the due date in a book with her date stamper or when I wrote my name in the book for sign-out.

One day, our teacher took the class on a library trip, which entailed marching us down the hallway, around the corner, and into the library. The library was so small, we had to line up and take turns, only five or six kids could fit at a time. The rest waited outside. Each student was supposed to pick one book to borrow and read.

It was almost my turn. I was in the doorway when I heard one boy’s voice screech from inside the library. “HOW COME ALL OF THESE BOOKS SAY ‘HEIDI KIM’ IN THEM?” The other kids looked around with puzzled expressions. I don’t know if they were wondering about the books or wondering who I was. The girl behind me in line nudged me and said loudly, “Is that what you do during recess and lunch? So that’s why nobody plays with you.”

I stayed quiet. I wasn’t sure what to say or how to act. I don’t remember if I knew the word humiliation, but I know that I felt the sensation.

Now as a grown-up, I know that kids can be blunt without meaning to hurt. I also know that kids’ faces show a lot more than they realize. I will never know what was written on my face in that moment, but I know it was the reason that Mrs. Ponder got up from her chair and put her hand on my shoulder.

She never said a word, but it was enough.

Years later—more than twenty years later—someone said to me that she had met someone who knew me from elementary school.

I couldn’t imagine who it was, and she said, “Trudy Ponder. She was your school librarian.”

A flood of emotions poured through me as I asked about Mrs. Ponder. (Not too long after the school library trip, my teacher had forbidden me from spending recess and lunch there, so my visits there were limited to quick after-school stops to pick up books before going home.)

She went on to explain. “It was such a strange conversation that led to us realizing the coincidence. Trudy said that she remembered you fondly from when you were a little girl and was sooooo glad to hear that you had grown up into a fine young woman.” From her tone, I inferred that Mrs. Ponder had, perhaps, had some (perfectly reasonable) doubts about my future.

Too soon after that Mrs. Ponder passed away from an aggressive cancer.

I never spoke a word to Mrs. Trudy Ponder, but she was one of my best friends and was there when I needed one so badly. I wish she had known how much she meant to me. I hope she knows now that fish out of water can fly.

“Anyone who ever gave you confidence, you owe them a lot.”