19/08/2016 12:36 PM AEST | Updated 27/08/2016 8:20 AM AEST

A Letter To The Boy Who Gave Me A Compliment 20 Years Ago

I've never forgotten that thing you said.

It was like a scene from some B-grade teen rom com.
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It was like a scene from some B-grade teen rom com.

You probably don't remember me. We were in Graphic Communication together in our final year at school, but we didn't interact. I sat up the front, listened to the teacher and ruled neat lines with my sharp HB. You sat down the back, graffitied your pencil case with white-out and threw rubbers at the ceiling fan.

You were a skater, I think. You grew your hair down past your collar, Kurt Cobain style, and wore a tight, beaded necklace like a pro surfer. You got into trouble a lot, but you weren't malicious, just distracted.

I was a part-time introvert and a full-time nerd. I joined the debating team, loved doing class presentations, had a role in the school musical. But if someone talked to me in the corridor I blushed and went mute, unable to transform my thoughts into anything audible.

I was also extraordinarily uncool. Other girls took their dresses up, bleached their hair, used mascara and lip gloss, crinkled their socks just so. I prioritised practicality over style. I had a neat bob and no piercings. On casual dress days I went to school in homemade tracksuits and second-hand sneakers.

No-one really bullied me, but no-one really noticed me either. Halfway through Year 9, Lauren (who had a boyfriend and a ring through her nose) said "Are you in my class?" I'd been sitting in the same room as her five days a week for six months.

And boys definitely weren't interested in me. One time I overheard Melanie and Jess complaining about the new exchange student. "He's asked everyone out," Melanie said, rolling her eyes. "Yeah," Jess agreed. "You know his type? Anything with a pulse."

My inference: that I was about as attractive as a cadaver.

Which is why I've never forgotten that thing you said.

It was 1997, the night of our Year 12 formal. Exams were over, secondary school was finished; we were on the cusp of adulthood. The celebratory event was held at some soulless reception centre with plush maroon carpet, cream laminate tables, a parquetry dance floor and the obligatory disco ball.

Despite my lack of fashion sense, I was all dressed up. I'd had my hair and makeup done professionally, and my dress -- although still homemade -- was modelled on the outfit that Lisa Kudrow wore in 'Romy and Michele's High School Reunion'. Plus, I was wearing high heels for the first time.

The evening progressed uneventfully. We had a posh three-course dinner and listened to some heartfelt speeches. We danced to the Spice Girls and chatted awkwardly to teachers we'd never see again.

And then, just after dessert, you came right over to my table, pulled me aside and said: "I just wanted to tell you that you look really great tonight." I don't remember how I responded -- I probably just gave you one of my standard closed-mouth smiles -- but internally I was filled with astonishment and joy.

It was like a scene from some B-grade teen rom-com (cool boy removes nerdy girl's glasses, girl blushes, boy leans in for a kiss), only without the underlying sexual tension. Even though I knew that you weren't trying to pick me up (not something I wanted anyway -- I didn't fancy you at all) and were definitely tipsy (or perhaps drunk), your unexpected compliment was nevertheless incredibly significant.

I know I'm supposed to value myself not for my appearance but rather for who I am: my personality, my intelligence, my principles. And believe me, I do. I am now -- as I drift into middle age -- brimming with self-confidence, and I no longer go mute in social situations.

But the truth is, your superficial drunken remark absolutely made my day, and sometimes I still think about it. I only wish that I'd had the courage to return the compliment -- after all, you looked pretty good yourself, in a suit and tie. If only somebody would organise a class of '97 20-year reunion...