Student Essay:
Twelve Words That Changed Me

By Ella Geoghegan

Sometimes the most trivial interactions have a surprising power.

This woman and I had never met before, and we have never seen each other since, but the words she spoke to me changed everything. The way I present myself, the connections I have made, and, most importantly, how I think. Though she will never know the impact she has had on my life, I will be forever grateful. To have such an effect with such a short meeting, you must be curious what her words were. Twelve words—that was all it took.

“To exist is a rare and beautiful thing; don’t waste it, darlin’.” A woman simply passing on a lesson she had learned to a stranger; she had no reason to do it, no knowledge of my life. But she decided that it was worth her energy to say those twelve words aloud, and I am very thankful that she did.

Now, this may seem like there would be more context or at least a dramatic background, but I assure you otherwise. I had been working at a fast food restaurant for a few months. That morning I was operating the drive-thru window, like any other rainy Saturday morning. I was in a bit of a mood (it was only seven, and I am the opposite of a morning person), and not exactly looking for conversation. Usually the words said to me go unheard, or all I can manage is to smile and nod. I meet hundreds of people every day—I simply don’t have the energy to fully engage each one. I like to tell people that I only remember the exceptional moments. (While this is sometimes exceptional kindness, it is often exceptional stupidity that causes me to contemplate the state of the world.) There are very few occurrences that I can think of that I remember to this day that don’t include huge tips, or someone driving straight into a bright red pole. And after all these months, the only memorable words anyone has ever spoken to me are those twelve.

"To exist is a rare and beautiful thing. Don't waste it, darlin'."

I thought them over throughout the day, never speaking them aloud, but making a mental note to remember them and live by them. “A rare and beautiful thing.” She made life sound like a sparkling gemstone or a shooting star. Her words made me think. I find myself contemplating the worst parts of my life fairly often, but never the amazing things that happen every day: the night sky when you are in the middle of nowhere, the view from a mountain’s peak, waves crashing on the shoreline, even birds singing as the sun rises. I have been wasting my life focusing on the bad things that happen rarely, rather than opening my eyes to the beauty that always surrounds me. No matter how many times my parents said I should be grateful for what I have, it never had any affect on me. But this stranger’s words to me on a rainy Saturday morning somehow opened my eyes to the blessings that life, this rare and beautiful thing, has provided. 

Maybe it’s because she called me “darlin’”; maybe it’s because I knew in the back of my mind that what she was saying was true. Whatever the reason might be, I heard her, and I took her words to heart. I may have been the first to hear these words from her, or perhaps she says the same thing to everyone she meets. If the latter is true, I hope more people will learn to appreciate the beauty of life, and decide not to let it go to waste. We could use some less plaintive people in this world (I say this as someone who complains about a lot of things, though hopefully less than I used to). To let life go by only caring about the ugly is to waste it. Whether it be nature, experiences, or people we meet, there is beauty in every moment if we choose to look for it. In a way, it is a shame that it took a stranger’s words to show me this; I wish I could have better understood for the first fifteen years of my life. Regardless, from that moment forward, no matter how long I have, I intend to see the beauty that surrounds me. I will not waste this rare opportunity called life.


Ella lives in Louisville, KY and is beginning her sophomore year as a homeschool student; she will be taking classes through James Madison Online High School and Compass Classroom. She is working to save for some travel abroad after graduation before starting college. She enjoys horses, dogs, and animals in general, and hopes to live on a farm someday while writing novels. 
If you enjoyed this essay, take a look at some of our other posts here at the Journal, like these student essays on The Count of Monte Cristo and on myth and fairy-story, or this author profile of Sir Isaac Newton. And don’t miss our weekly podcast on education and culture, Anchored.
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