I was five when my parents and I moved into our new home, a large bungalow on a quiet suburban street. My mom and I stood on the front lawn, taking in our new surroundings. Our next door neighbor walked over and introduced herself. Holding her hand was a little girl with long red hair, and a quiet, confident personality.
“This is Jean,” said her mom.
I hid behind my mom’s legs, clutching her trousers until my mom pried my fingers loose and made me say, “Hi.”
Our friendship was initially forced on us, but it didn’t long for us to become best friends. Jean became my confidant, the keeper of my secrets, the one who knew my every dream. We read the same books, played the same games, sometimes even inventing our own. We played dolls, built houses out of large cardboard boxes, threw Frisbees, rode bikes to the beach, and created many (often failed) concoctions in the kitchen.
But as much fun as we had together, Jean and I were completely different.
Jean could cut a worm in two, watch both parts squiggle across a hot sidewalk while she gave her scientific explanation as to why this worked. I sat by and watched, horrified and disgusted, trying hard to be brave like my friend. But I never was.
Jean had a bravery I didn’t know. Perhaps it came from being the youngest of many children, a kind of survival technique, or maybe it was because most of her older siblings were brothers, and she learned bravery from them. But whatever it was, compared to her, I was a pampered little girl, devoid of any courage.
Jean taught me my first lessons in bravery. She taught me to wear scars like badges of honor. Once I skinned my knee, and when I started to whimper, she said, “Don’t cry.” And I didn’t. I didn’t even cry the summer I stepped on a bee, or the time I stood on a pile of hot coals.
One summer Jean sat on her front lawn, holding a saltine cracker smothered in peanut butter. She stretched out her hand, waiting for a little gray squirrel to snatch the cracker from her fingers. I think Jean was afraid, but never once was she not courageous.
She was even brave the day her family was taking her on vacation. I clung to her, afraid to let her go, afraid we’d never see each other again. As she got into the station wagon, she looked back at me, and with tears streaming down her freckled cheeks, waved goodbye.
I learned a lot from the little girl with long red hair, that even in the face of fear, we can be courageous. That if you let fear lead your life, you will never truly live.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t met her. I wonder if I would have fought my fears the way I did, if I would have survived traumas, an auto accident, and a brain injury.
Through each event I was afraid, yet I had learned to move ahead anyway, to fight my fears with courage. All because of a little girl with long red hair.