Stephanie passed away almost two weeks ago. I didn’t think about, until afterwards, how profound of an impact they had on my life.
Steph was the weird kid in my elementary school. When I was in grade school, I had this super strong, instinctive sense that I was different, but if anyone found out they would ostracise me and something really, really bad would happen as a result. I spent basically all of my brain cycles on trying to fit in and conform. Getting the coolest erasers, trying to make sure my outfits were all on trend even though all I had were second hand pickings to work with, not reading too much where others could see. Being nice to the popular girls and performatively mean to the unpopular ones even though I felt contempt for the former and kinship towards the latter. Clinging on to my place in the social hierarchy felt like a matter of life or death. My diary at the time was full of actual charts where I plotted the popularity of all of my classmates against each other. I was a really shitty human.
Steph was the one person that broke me out of that, by being so unapologetically weird and cheerful, in all my classes, for years on end. They sometimes got bullied, but they also were sometimes friends with people from all over the hierarchy, and they seemed so much more sure of themself than anyone else – so alive, so in tune with what they wanted to do. If they wanted to invent a silly dance or go extra on a homework assignment that was not meant for people to go extra on they just got right on it, without a shred of self-consciousness. Eventually just by being in the same space as them over a prolonged period of time I realized that being so unapologetically yourself was worth more than the miserable status climbing, even worth the occasional spate of bullying that wasn’t world-ending after all even though it sucked, and that I can survive as an outsider to the system, just like they did.
We started hanging out in fourth grade, I think, and in fifth and sixth grade they were one of my best friends and my partner in crime. I never had so much fun as I did just making shit with them. For a project where each group picked a planet to do a presentation on, every other group wrote reports that they read to the rest of the class, while we made outfits and props to do a skit set 50 million years into the future about Phobos leaving their shitty relationship with Deimos to be with Mars forever. (The skit made the entire class and the teacher laugh until they cried, but because we strategically ignored entire parts of the rubric to advance our artistic vision, despite the crazy amount of research we did we ended up only getting a B.)
We wrote countless numbers of songs and funny PowerPoint presentations (shitposts before shitposts were a thing) and plays together, some of which we even performed. We climbed trees together, duct taped wooden planks together into strange structures in their parents’ garage (their parents very reasonably didn’t let us use nails or hammers), rode skateboards wrong down suburban hills, and made silly obstacle courses for their pet hamster. They knew I had a sweet tooth and never failed to share their fruit snacks with me during lunch.
We went to different middle schools and high schools, but still hung out occasionally. They ended up at the same university as me as well, but we had drifted apart by then, and we only hung out together a few times a year.
Lots of people grow out of being the weird kid, but Steph never did. The lesson they taught me frayed with time + distance and I ended up thinking things like “obviously in retrospect popularity didn’t matter in elementary school, but of course it’ll matter now that I’m trying to network with other professionals for job opportunities” and stuff like that. Steph meanwhile at the same campus as me shitposted their way into becoming president of our staid and stuffy undergrad student union without ever wearing anything more formal than an oversized graphic t-shirt and a backwards baseball cap.
That’s not the whole story of course – they were deeply committed to making life better for their constituents, fighting hard for accommodations and student belonging and a goose statue on campus (after Canadian geese became a running joke in our university subreddit). They were ridiculously smart and practical about it every step of the way as well, always going the extra mile and thinking through implications and practical details of implementation and which group was best suited to take each proposal on.
I got to hear so many stories at Steph’s funeral about them going up to the new people and shy people at every school and orientation and conference and event that they were at, and trying their hardest to make them feel welcome and safe. They touched so many lives, and so many people have stories about being taken under Steph’s wing and finally feeling free to be their authentic selves – I am only one of many, many people that they gave this gift to.
I always thought that Steph would continue to do this for a long time. That I’d continue to run into them at NYE parties and backyard barbecues for decades to come. And that every time I’d see them, they’d be happier, more settled, more sure of themselves and their identity and taking on better and larger projects with an increasing number of friends and allies. We’d catch up and discuss the newest cartoon shows we liked and implementation details of their latest policy project and they’d promise me for the nth time to finally send me a copy of the script for the play we performed at our sixth grade talent show.
Steph had this sort of unwavering, implicit faith in the fact that that they can do good in the world without ever compromising who they were as a person – someone deeply weird, and funny, and overly intense, but never unkind. The fact that they were right about this is something I won’t forget a second time.
The world is darker for their absence.