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A 13-year-old found unexpected support in the school hallway after he lost his mom


Time now for "My Unsung Hero," our series from the team at Hidden Brain. "My Unsung Hero" tells the stories of people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.

When Todd Kashdan was 13, his mother died of breast cancer. He and his twin brother stayed home for about a week before heading back to school.

TODD KASHDAN: I was surprised to find that when I walked through the hallway, none of my friends would make eye contact with me. Nobody wanted to make eye contact with me - not teachers, not friends, not teammates. Every once in a while, as I was walking to my first class, somebody would have this half-wave where it barely even crossed their chest.

And in that hallway, the most unlikely of supports walked over to me - Jeff Pajot (ph), a football player on the team with me, a guy that was definitely not in my social group. He was popular. He hung out with girls. Girls didn't even talk to me yet. We weren't friends. And he put his arm around me, and I'll never forget what he said. He said, hey; I heard about your mom. How are you doing? And he looked me right in the eye, and Jeff said, listen; let me walk you to class. And I was almost in tears.

And it sounds really intimate and emotional. And at 13 in 1987, it was - just the idea that someone saw me. And as we walked through the hallway, it was as if I had this invisible protective shield that made me feel a little bit more strong and that I could get through this. And when I got to class, he just patted me on the shoulder as if he did nothing and then walked off.

And the unfortunate thing is Jeff Pajot died. And it was that moment last year when I heard about this online that I realized I never thanked him, and he never knew how much I thought about him and how much of an impact he had on my life. And so I leave this story up here for anyone that loved him or cared for him to know that there was a guy who helped another guy at the most crucible moment of his development and his life, and he made everything OK.

SHAPIRO: Todd Kashdan lives in Clifton, Va. Jeff Pajot died of cancer in August of 2020. He was 47.

You can find more stories like this on the podcast "My Unsung Hero." And to share your story of an unsung hero, record a voice memo on your phone and email it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.