I saw a penny on the floor as I strolled outside the grocery store. And I didn’t pick it up. I could have; part of me wanted to. Every time, part of me wants to, from habit. But I’m not who I used to be, and I didn’t need what that penny represented anymore.
I’m not in elementary school anymore, staring at the floor a minute extra every day. Eyes sweeping each tile separately as I slowly walked to my classes, a book clutched to my chest. I found a decent amount of money those years. The girl no one called out to at recess, even when she said she was good to play. The graceless girl no one hung out with even to walk to classes. The strange one who asked too many questions that had unknowable answers and didn’t think to ask them quietly. I made less eye contact every year, until by my last year I’d memorized which floor tiles averaged the most amount of change.
I’m not in middle school anymore, where I spent time in the summers not swimming. I had no swim buddies, and avoided the pool boys who ignored my face to stare at my puberty-ignited body. I pored over the park grounds around the pool area though, finding change and not new faces to say hello to. A glance four feet from the ground gave me answers to the sense I was being stared at. An odd look here or there to the kid studiously walking back and forth for seemingly no reason. I hoped my mother didn’t notice.
I’m not in high school anymore, where I found the most money. It was a bigger school, with more kids to lose their change. It was a bigger place filled with more students who didn’t want to insinuate themselves into my social circle. I changed my cloths at one point. I rubbed on make up and spare jewelry, seeing if my difference would fit someone else’s. But I wasn’t me, so I changed back and found more metal on the floor.
I never counted how much I found in all those years. It didn’t matter, I never spent any of it; I probably donated it as time went by into those little charity containers at diners. What mattered was that I gradually stopped looking for anything to find one day in my second year of high school.
I had done nothing much to warrant any attention from this girl, the one who spoke to me. We’d worked together on a project, where we’d teamed up to do most of it since the rest of the group didn’t care to get the grade we both wanted to earn. We made small talk a lot in our time together, and that’s all it took for her to suddenly notice me when I walked past her in the halls. I’d been invisible before, a wraith of no certain color or substance. It didn’t matter that I wore bright colors on my clothes daily, or that I always had a new book in my hands; you do the same things everyday and people get used to it. You become a fixture in the scenery.
But then she saw me and the catalyst happened. After the project was over, I started to sit with her at lunch, by her invitation. Eventually she’d sign my yearbook at that same table, filling up a whole page with beautiful loopy scrawl meant just for me. Months passed of our acquaintanceship, with her noticing me noticing the floor’s dirty prints as I walked.
She eventually said to me one day, “You should look up more.” I was confused at first. Looking down at school had been ingrained in me now. Who was there to meet my gaze when I wasn’t eyeing the floor?
“What?” I said.
She told me, “You’re always staring at the floor when you walk, with your head down. You should look up.”
And I gave the only honest answer I could: “I’m just so used to walking that way.”
Looking away from the floor only to be met with the empty air where a friend should be was a crushing existence I was used to escaping. Focusing on it at that moment, I felt shame.
“You’ll look more confident if you walk with your head up. People can see your face. You deserve to feel confident.”
And with those words she saved me. Like a door was opened and she ushered me through just by caring enough to say you matter here. Waiting for a friend to fill the void next to me before I stopped being a walking hall zombie wasn’t working. I hadn’t known then that what I’d needed was someone to lift up my eyes and make me try again, to go back to when I was in elementary school and still trying to connect with other students despite myself. Even if the only action I took to put myself out there was to look up into the eyes of those around me.
So I’m not a teenager anymore. I don’t need coins on the ground to replace the comfort of someone I worked hard to put in my life. It took time for me to stop looking at the ground, to remind myself there were people around me who could speak to me; they would not sit quietly in my pocket. Every coin I picked up was a sign I wasn’t looking onward and outward. The tokens in my pockets petered out until I had nothing in them but the numbers of those who looked to fill my heart.
I haven’t spoken much to that girl from school after we graduated, but I think of her words often. She has no idea what she did. It was a silent, slow undertaking, but what’s left of her intent will always be right beside the part of me that looks at that change, telling it to stay where it is.