In 1989, when I was in eighth grade, my bang curling game was Debbie Gibson level, but the rest of my hair was something out the “don’ts” section of a Supercuts training manual. I weighed 80 pounds (hard to believe, I am aware), and wore a training bra only because otherwise my uniform shirt was see-through. I had oversized, blue tortoise shell Converse glasses, and a retainer. Are you pickin’ up what I’m putting’ down?

I was not cute, not popular and not cool. Like, at all.

As there usually is, there was a golden boy in our class whom I will call Cory. He was IT.

For starters, he was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen. He had those eyelashes that for some reason God only gives to boys. They were dark and thick and lined his eyes as though he applied Wet ‘n Wild eyeliner before school every day. He most certainly did not go to Supercuts to get his surfer haircut, shaved on the bottom, perfect dirty-blonde bowl cut on top. He had deep dimples and a heart-melting smile with perfect teeth and a toothpaste commercial sparkle. 

He was a great athlete too. He wore the lucky #13 Lions basketball jersey. He was also smart. He lived in a really nice neighborhood. 

Basically, he had it all. 

Sometimes having it all in middle school comes with a certain arrogance and an attitude to match. But not for Cory. Not only was he a tween heartthrob, he was a genuinely nice boy. 

Like most of the girls in our class, I developed an undying crush on him. I adored him from afar, though. He was definitely out of my league. Actually, at a time when I longed to be liked by a boy, they all seemed to be out of my league (remember the hair, svelte 80 pound figure, nerd glasses and retainer?). At times, some of those boys were kind of cruel to me. I had some pretty rough patches in middle school. You know how it is.

I went to our eighth grade Christmas dance alone because a boy did not ask me to “go” with him. I wasn’t surprised. I knew Cory would show up with Lisa, his super cool Liz Claiborne purse-toting “date.”

Lisa was the opposite of me: she was pretty and popular. She smelled sweetly of the Paul Mitchell hairspray coating her perfectly stiff bangs, her mom drove the coolest teal green Mercedes, and she wore super fashionable red glasses that I coveted. It was no wonder that Cory belonged to her.

But still, my only wish was to dance just once with Cory. Deep down, I knew it would never happen. I was resigned, not even remotely hopeful.

At the dance, I boogied with my girlfriends for the fast songs, and sat in the cafeteria chairs staring down at the terrazzo floor for every single slow song. I just wished someone–anyone, really–would ask me to dance. But no one did. Not one boy wanted to dance with me, let alone Cory. It was crushing to my 13 year old soul.

When the dance was coming to a close, the DJ announced the last song. It was to be a slow song. I saw my mom through the cafeteria window so I slowly moped over to where I had left my sweater because the Christmas dance was over for me.

But as I was getting my Sears Outlet sweater off the back of a folding cafeteria chair, feeling pretty sorry for myself, I felt a gentle tap on my right shoulder. I turned around, and to my utter surprise and joy, there stood sweet, handsome Cory smiling at me. I can only imagine the look on my face. It would have taken Academy Award winning acting skills to hide my shock and awe.

Cory looked at me sincerely and said, “would you like to dance the last dance with me?” I was stunned for a second but then I was thrilled. It was literally like a midle school dream come true. 

We walked to the dance floor and swayed at arm’s length like middle schoolers do. The song was Somewhere Out There from the movie An American Tail. I have thought fondly of Cory every single time I have heard that song since 1989. Usually, it makes me cry. 

Dancing with Cory for three minutes was, to that point, the greatest thing that had ever happened to me. It was a moment I will never, ever forget. I went home from the dance with a feeling of pure, unadulterated joy. When I climbed into my red metal Full House knock-off bunk bed that night, I felt as though I was floating. I lay there giddy and unable to sleep. I was truly elated. 

What I didn’t know then, but realized many years later was that he made that gesture out of compassion. He saw that scrawny, awkward little girl whom none of the boys liked, and he was brave enough to try to make her feel accepted. When he was barely a teenager, he showed kindness and empathy far beyond his years. I know adults with less proclivity for acting with such a tender heart. 

I am 42 years old, and to this day, this one small, gracious act is one of the most impressionable things a person has ever done for me. I suspect it will remain so. Something so seemingly insignificant was actually a defining moment in my life. I will never forget that feeling of happiness. 

Sadly, Cory died a few years ago. When I heard about his death, I was extraordinarily sad considering I hadn’t talked to him in several years. He left such an indelible mark on my heart that I felt a deep loss for the boy who had shown me true kindness when I needed it. 

Mamas and daddies, tell your kids: One single thoughtful gesture makes an impact. One simple generous act can have long-lasting effects. This is something I know for sure. 

In 1989, I was the awkward girl who needed a little kindness. Today, I am the (much cooler thank-you-very-much) grown-up who knows how much even the smallest amount of kindness means to a child.

If I only instill ONE thing in my children, it is to be empathetic, kind and loving people (okay three things). I want them to be the type of people who have the courage to stand up and be a friend to someone who needs one. 

My greatest wish is for them to be the kind of people who leave an indelible mark on someone’s heart…

…to be a Cory.