Sometimes, just sometimes, I go to the park and sit alone on a bench and I look at the people that pass by. I can’t be sure what I’m looking for, but almost every single time I find myself thinking about the faces I see, then I assign different personalities to them. For instance, a tall, skinny, light-skinned girl with a pretty face passed by once. She was dressed in all things short and promiscuous, making all kinds of noise and laughing with her friends. I automatically thought she had no sense of direction in life, you know the YOLO (you-only-live-once) type.

Weeks later, I went to a leadership programme about young people in South Africa and to my surprise, the girl from the park was there, all short-dressed and loud as ever. I must admit that I disliked her as she was not anything like me. In the programme we were given a task and, to my horror, I got paired with her. I thought to myself that maybe I had committed a crime in my past life; perhaps murdered a whole town or stolen candy from all the kids in the world.

She spoke first, introducing herself as Lerato. Now, having met all the ‘Lerato’s’ in the world, I thought she was no different. The Lerato’s I knew would bully me in primary school and tease me in high school. I was never at ease around a Lerato.

For a second, I froze in thought, hating her more for her name. Somehow it just fit the face and personality I had assigned her, and by the looks of things and the way she looked at me, she had reservations of her own. Maybe she thought I was a retard or another bully designed and custom-made for her.

I collected myself, held my head high with just enough pouting and replied: “My name is Adilet”, showing her just the uniqueness I have that she would never by sprint or beauty grasp. I had already made up my mind: she was another ‘Blonde, black girl’ if that makes sense.

We were tasked with such an interesting topic: BREAKING DOWN STEREOTYPES, you know the kind that say “black people are lazy” or “a woman’s place is in the kitchen” and “blonde women are stupid”. Although stereotypes are derived from some sort of truth, they are not entirely correct.

I let her discuss first the thoughts she had about this wonderful topic in the hope of crushing her ideas with what I had in mind, knowing I was the smartest between the two of us and what possibly could she know? Sitting there listening to what she said made me realise how wrong and stereotypic I was. She was saying all the things I wanted to say, but better. She painted a picture with high definition. I could see the colours contrasting each other, perfectly crafted like God Himself made them. She was not stupid after all! I fed from her and hung on every word, but she was schooling me. Not that I would admit it to her, but she got me!

Our talk led us to our lives, and she narrated her story about how she was abused in every form as a child; how she grew up abandoned and lost but found solace in books. How she escaped the confines of misery through worlds tailored in pages. How she had been in every story known by men. How she travelled the world with just her reading and how she fell in love with herself again.

Lerato was two years older than me, had no parents and no support structure, yet in 60 minutes, she became my role model. Funny, isn’t it? That night, I lay in my bed thinking how someone I disliked so much could end up being someone I looked up to? How could she be so carefree and happy when she had gone through such abuse when she was a child? I was amazed. I slept pondering about her and had dreams that were like time-frame collages, only I was in her shoes; I led her life and felt her pain.

In these dreams, I found myself crying into the night, my pillow soaked through with tears and snot. I woke up in a sweat, dazed as if I had been asleep for decades. I remember the time was 04:25am but I could not go back to sleep as something in me stirred. I had to do something, but I wracked my brain trying to find out what it could be. Then, in all that mist, I struck a chord. I had to talk to her again. I had more to learn and I felt guilty; disgusted by my initial thoughts of her. She was a woman, and one I aspired to be – a strong woman.

I still go to the park sometimes. I look at the faces that pass by and think of heroes and heroines, but mostly I go to the park to look for her, the Lerato that changed my life. I look for the girl I judged because of how she appeared, but she ended up becoming my role model!