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My Unsung Hero: An unexpected act of kindness

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Time now for "My Unsung Hero," our series from the team at Hidden Brain. It tells the stories of people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.

Today's story comes from a woman named Jennifer (ph). We're only using her first name to protect your privacy. As a kid, Jennifer felt like she never quite fit in. Her classmates made fun of her for being socially awkward and wearing unfashionable clothes. Going to school felt like torture. But the bullying escalated to a whole new level in seventh grade, when a group of three girls began singling her out almost every day after class.

JENNIFER: I had no defense against any of this. Whatever insult they said to me, I just said right back to them. So they would say, you're stupid. And I'd say, no, you're stupid. And they'd say, you're ugly. And I'd say, no, you're ugly.

The school year was terrible. I was miserable. My grades were terrible. I cried most days on the way home from school trying to get myself together so my mother wouldn't know what was going on.

In the summer between seventh and eighth grade, the ringleader of this gang of girls was tragically killed in a car accident. Although I had never wished anything like that on any of them - I really just had wanted them to stop picking on me - I did hold out some hope that this might mean that eighth grade could be different. And that hope lasted about two days into the new school year, when I discovered that the gang of girls was still together. They had a new ringleader. And whenever they could get free, they would come find me as always and torment me as always.

And I was miserable again until about six weeks into the school year - when I was changing after gym class, I'd waited till all the other kids were gone so that I could change in private - when I hear a voice. And I look up, and there was the new ringleader standing there looking angry. She said, I want to talk to you. And I was terrified. I had never spoken to her before. And she said, my girls tell me that you've been insulting them. And I was just so surprised at the injustice of it. And I just began to cry. And she said, what are you crying about? And that just made it worse.

And when it got that bad, the whole story just tumbled out of me on how these girls had tormented me all the way through seventh grade and how no insult I had ever thrown at them was anything they hadn't said to me 10 seconds before. And then I hear her say, I'm sorry. I didn't know that. I'll tell them to stop. And when I looked up, she was gone. And those girls never spoke to me again.

I approach the world very differently than I would have had this not happened. I take the risk of trusting other people more often than I would have. And I've had people tell me how much my gestures meant to them - all things that I did because my unsung hero gave me a view of humanity I had never had before. And if I could tell her about that today, I would tell her that she didn't just change my life, though she did. She changed the whole world.

SUMMERS: Jennifer now lives and works in Maryland.

You can find more stories from "My Unsung Hero" wherever you get your podcasts. And to share the story of your unsung hero, record a voice memo on your phone and email it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.