Written by Madeleine Minks
Art by Greta Scheff
Throughout all three years of middle school, I had the same locker. Everyone had the same locker, and as a result, all of my locker buddies remained the same. This was unfortunate in one regard: the boy whose locker was above mine, who, for the purpose of this article, we’ll call Chris. Chris was as loud, rude, and obnoxious as sixth graders frequently were. If I can accredit anything to him from my early years in middle school, it’s the fact that he definitely brought me out of my shell, even if it was only to yell at him for stepping on my bag for the upteenth time. He played some large instrument in band–trombone, I think–and would nearly or actually drop it on my head at least once a week. I reminded him of this fact frequently.
Suffice to say, we had a bit of a rivalry. We threw insults at each other like we were neighbors who had bitterly shared the same-side yard for the past fifty years. It was a good time for no one, I thought. It was the actual worst, and I wished literally anyone else had the locker above me. When the horror show that was eighth grade was finally rolling to a close, I was absolutely thrilled to be rid of Chris forever. I was going to a different high school and I would never have to see him again.
Our school held our graduation in some other school, our own auditorium not large enough to accommodate the 300 students graduating and all of their parents and relatives. They had all of us soon-to-be middle school graduates crammed into the foreign school’s gymnasium. The girls were running around and gushing over each others’ outfits and the boys were trying to get into the gym supply closet to play basketball. I joined my friends in talking about whatever and pointing out all of the dresses that we liked, all while an apocalyptic dread began to fill me. I was going to walk across that stage and everything was going to change. Literally everyone I grew up with was going to vanish from my academic life forever. The gym suddenly felt too large, my friends’ chatter too loud, my chest too tight.
Someone had us line up alphabetically, as they were almost ready to start the ceremony. In our three years there, we’d never had to line up alphabetically, but everyone knew their neighbors–they were the kids we’d shared our locker space with. As a result, Chris was right in front of me.
I was deep in the trenches of a minor panic attack by this point. I wanted to run out of that building and never look back, but instead, something incredibly odd happened. I don’t remember who started it, him or me, but Chris and I started talking. Joking around even, like we’d been friends this whole time and not bitter locker rivals.
And I was enjoying myself. I was still afraid, but it began to fade into the background as Chris and I joked about nonsense. It felt like laughing in the face of fear.
I find myself drawn back to this memory over and over again. It fascinates me. I knew the other kids around me; I could have talked to them instead. But it was Chris who, unknowingly, pulled me out of my panicked spiral.
Since then–and possibly before–I’ve watched myself use talking as a coping mechanism. There have been countless times when just talking to someone about something entirely random or listening to them talk has pulled me out of a spiral, or, at least, kept me tethered.
To name a recent example: I’d just gotten out of class and was feeling acutely anxious for reasons entirely unrelated to anything happening around me. The panic had dampened for a moment as I’d stopped to tell a classmate a funny story, but had returned full force the moment I was alone again. I stopped just outside the building to take my meds and try to get my emotions under control, when the same classmate passed me. We laughed about the double encounter and the story from before, and I forced myself to grab my things and follow her–we were going in the same direction, anyways. It wasn’t therapy or a confessional. It was only a simple conversation, but it was an easy focal point, something blissfully attainable.
What is the allure of a conversation in a moment of mild crisis? Distraction? There are plenty of other methods of distractions: listening to music, reading, watching a show or funny videos, playing a game, going on a walk, pretty much any hobby ever. Even work, school and/or job related tasks can be soothing in their familiarity. Or, if one feels desperate for a conversation, why wouldn’t we turn to a trusted friend or loved one whenever possible?
According to Melinda Blau and Karen L. Fingerman, authors of Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don’t Seem to Matter. . . But Really Do, people we encounter casually, “are as vital to our well-being, growth, and day-to-day existence as family and close friends. Consequential strangers anchor us in the world and give us a sense of being plugged into something larger.” This, I was thrilled to realize, explains why joking around with Chris made me feel grounded–it was a reminder that I am here, a part of the chaos that is humanity.
There’s evidence to suggest that there are physical and psychological benefits to talking with strangers and casual companions. Research done by psychologists Gillian M. Sandstrom and Elizabeth W. Dunn shows that people who smiled and interacted with their barista experienced improved mood, energy levels, and gained a sense of belonging. To add my own experience to the mix, I can testify that talking to people has improved my health by decreasing instances of panic, something that is objectively bad for your well-being. And while casual conversation isn’t going to cure anyone’s anxiety, anything that helps is worth keeping in your toolbox.
Last year, I participated in my school’s Elevator Pitch, a contest that allows contestants to deliver a 90 second pitch in one of three categories in front of a panel of judges. There were seventeen finalists in all, spread across the three categories. Prior to the event, they put us all in a separate room to wait, which I have come to notice is a trend for any event.
In this separate room, I chewed on a complimentary mint and observed my peers. Many of them knew each other–business students, from what I gathered, were required to enter for a class. I spoke a bit to the others, but I mostly observed, unsure what to say. Every now and then, I get shy in social situations–often enough that I wouldn’t call it uncharacteristic, but not frequently enough to be considered an introvert.
Once they herded us all into an alphabetical line outside the auditorium–another trend, one we’ll never quite grow out of, I guess–a hush fell over the group. We all figured we were about to go on stage, and we all wanted to present ourselves as professionally as possible.
Then the silence went on for a little too long, someone started joking around, and we all started bouncing off of each other. I found myself bantering with people whose names I didn’t know, some of whom I couldn’t ever recall seeing.
In particular, I struck up a camaraderie with the girl next to me. We were competing in different categories, but I got the feeling we’d have bonded all the same even if we’d been competitors. When it was my turn to go up, she cheered me on and whispered her congratulations when I got back to my seat; when it was her turn to go up and she had grown particularly anxious, I reassured her and encouraged her. When there was a fan favorite vote for each category, we both confided that we had voted for each other.
The feeling wasn’t too different from whispering with your best friend during a school assembly, except we didn’t know each other and we were there willingly. When we both placed second in our respective categories, it felt, at least to me, like a shared victory. Like we’d held each other up during something that, in hindsight, was a mere moment in our college experiences, but at the time, was the immediate stressor we had to deal with. Separate but together, the seventeen of us went up on that stage, fought the primal part of our brains telling us to run away, and delivered (mostly) elegant pitches.
I have not spoken to Chris since graduating eighth grade. As mentioned before, I went to a different high school than my classmates, and I had no reason to stay in touch with someone who had been a source of indignation and injury for three years. Yet, when I think about him, I remember not just the irritable banter and being whacked by his large instrument, but also that night in the gymnasium. I wonder if he was just as afraid as I was. Or, maybe, if he could tell I was scared and decided that he could be kind to me, just that once. Or–and I suspect this is the case–the thrill of leaving middle school behind forever clouded over our trivial rivalry.
Whatever the case may be, I’m grateful for him. I’m grateful for the double encounter with my classmate the other day, and I’m grateful for my Elevator Pitch buddy. There are dozens of people–friends, classmates, acquaintances, and utter strangers–who have, unknowingly, carried me through a small segment of my day. I appreciate every single one of them, and I encourage you to do the same, if it suits you.