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After Julie's mortifying moment in college, a classmate knew just how to help

Julie Ort (left) said she has never forgotten the kindness of a fellow classmate after an embarrassing fall in her freshman year physics class.
Julie Ort
Julie Ort (left) said she has never forgotten the kindness of a fellow classmate after an embarrassing fall in her freshman year physics class.

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series from the Hidden Brain team about people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.

Sometimes, the smallest gesture of kindness can change the way we think about the world.

A few years before college, Julie Ort suffered a major spinal cord injury. She was still recovering when she arrived on campus and had to use a leg brace and orthopedic crutches to get around. It was a cumbersome task to get from class to class.

One day early in her freshman year, Ort arrived late to her physics class. The course was taught in a large lecture hall with stadium seating. Everyone could see her as she awkwardly made her way up the stairs. She spotted a seat in the second row and decided to sit there.

"But as I was scooting sideways between the first and second rows, that's when all the laws of inertia and momentum decided to conspire against me," Ort said.

Ort's backpack shifted, and she fell backward over the first row of seats.

"My legs shot straight up in the air so that the entire class was framed between my knees as they in unison, gasped, some of them reaching their hands out as if they might be able to catch me. All of them with a look of absolute horror on their faces," she said.

The instructor of the class came over and lifted her legs over the back of the seat, swinging her around to face the front of the room. Ort was mortified.

"I just looked at him and begged, 'Please, please just go on teaching.' And so he did," she said.

Once the class was done, Ort avoided making eye contact with the other students as she left.

"I just kept thinking that for the next four years, I would meet people and never know if they might've been in that class," she said.

She spent the day ruminating on what had happened. After all of her classes, she was still too embarrassed to go back to her dorm, so she went to the library and found a place to hide. She sat down at a study carrel, the kind that has two desks facing each other with a high wooden partition separating them.

"And I just kept reliving those god-awful 50 minutes of class, where I sat there with a wall of pity on my back. There just seemed to be no way to recover from my embarrassment and shame," Ort recalled.

But then, Ort looked up to see something unexpected: a hand sliding two warm chocolate chip cookies across the desk toward her. The partition blocked her view. So she leaned to the side and saw another student.

"He leaned out to meet my gaze and just shrugged and said, 'I was in physics class today,'" Ort remembers. "That was it. And then I ate those warm chocolate chip cookies."

Those chocolate chip cookies were more than a consolation after a hard day. The stranger's act of kindness made a lifelong impact on Ort.

"It made me realize that even in those moments of being brought incredibly low, there are people who just want you to take that next step forward," she said. "And that's what I did."

"To my unsung hero, I don't remember your face. I didn't think to ask your name, but I have never forgotten your kindness. Thank you."

Ort says she still walks with canes and a leg brace, but today she is also a passionate biker and a cross country skier living in Highlands Ranch, Colo.

My Unsung Hero is also a podcast. You can find it anywhere you get your podcasts. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brigid McCarthy
Autumn Barnes
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