By Jason Wright
During my middle school bus-riding years, my family lived in the quiet country several miles outside of Charlottesville. Unfortunately, I was usually the last to board each morning.
By the time the bus reached the bottom of my long gravel driveway, there were only few seats left. Finding one amid the cruel snickers of 6th, 7th and 8th graders felt like a warped game of "Where's Waldo?"
My wobbly, knobby knees carried me up the steps and I knew that if I didn't find the open seat quickly, the bus driver would snap at me and only deepen the embarrassment.
One bright spring morning as I waited anxiously for the bus to arrive, I decided that I'd simply had enough. It had been a particularly rough couple of days and the bus had become a laboratory of bullying and mockery for others and me.
I would not get on the bus that morning.
With a burst of brilliant ingenuity, I scanned the trees that lined both sides of our driveway and spread deep into the surrounding forest and picked one on an angle about 20 yards from the edge of the road.
Then, I hid.
A few minutes later, the bus barreled down the road and stopped at the bottom of the driveway. Thinking I was nowhere in sight, the driver punched the gas and continued down the winding country road without me.
I glided back up to the house and explained to my mother that I somehow managed to miss the bus. It wasn't the first time, of course, but it was the first time it had been deliberate. Mom called my father and he drove a fair distance from his office in downtown Charlottesville to pick me up and drive me into school.
After stopping by the office and handing over a note from my mother, the secretary gave me a late pass and shooed me on my way. As I moved down the hall, feeling smug that I'd successfully beaten the system, a kid from my bus passed me on his way to the library.
"Hey Jason, what happened to you this morning? Why were you hiding behind a tree in the woods?"
"Wait, what?" I mumbled. "You saw me?"
"Not just me, we all saw you."
The new few minutes were a blurry haze. Somehow I managed to find my way to class, plop into a desk and imagine the misery that awaited me the next morning. I had practice after school and, mercifully, wouldn't have to ride the bus home.
The next morning I got ready, had what I assumed would be my final meal, and took the long walk down death row to the bottom of the driveway. It was the longest wait of my life.
Eventually, the bus appeared, came to a stop at my feet and the door squeaked opened. I took a long breath and climbed the three steps to face the music. I stared down that narrow aisle that separated the rows of cracked, green vinyl seats and prayed for a miracle.
His name was Roy.
The tall, athletic and popular African-American kid was a couple of years older than I and never seemed to sit in the same seat twice. He didn't have to. He could sit anywhere he wanted. He probably could've driven the bus if he'd asked.
To my surprise, Roy called me by name and slapped his hand against the empty seat next to him. I sat and wondered what was next. An insult? A riddle where I'd become the punch line?
Instead, Roy asked me what kind of music I liked. I answered and he followed with another question, then another. What he didn't talk about was the incident just 24 hours earlier.
He hadn't just given me a seat; he'd given me a lifeline.
Roy had seen me.
The next morning I stepped onto the bus convinced that it had been a one-time act of charity, some sort of strange nerd outreach project.
I was wrong. Roy again slapped the seat and gave me a nod.
This went on a few days more and my experience on the bus was never the same.
Summer came and, sadly, I never saw Roy again. But if he walked passed me today on a crowded sidewalk, I would immediately recognize his face.
I've often considered how Roy might have addressed the problem on our bus if we'd been part of some after-school special or made-for-television movie.
He might have asked the bus driver to stop a hundred yards before my driveway. He might have jumped onto the front seat and turned to address his classmates.
"My friends! This must end today! We should accept one another and be friends! Change starts with us!"
All of the students would slowly begin to clap until all were chanting his name.
Instead, perhaps recognizing his unofficial role as a popular and likable leader, he lead by example. No teachers involved, no reports filed, no interventions. Just a simple act of kindness.
I can't say if anyone else's life was changed that day, but I do know that I'm different today because of him.
Sometimes I like to think back to that boy hiding behind a tree in the woods. I think there might be a little bit of him in all of us. It seems everyone has those rough days they either feel invisible or wish they could be.
But I also think there's a little bit of Roy in all of us, too. It's that quiet willingness to say, "Hey, I've got room for you. Come sit."
I bet there is someone in your world and mine who needs us to see them today. They need us to wake our inner Roy and pat that empty seat next to us.
Come on, let's get on that bus.
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The 13th Day of Christmas." He can be reached at email@example.com or jasonfwright.com.