People are never what they seem. Everyone is several people at once, with multiple characteristics and personality traits. It's as if we are all adorned with Halloween masks. Some wear the faces of clowns, painted with bright colors and a wide smile, easily likable. Others are wearing frowns, with great blue tears streaming down their faces. Some are the faces of wild animals, the unknown and the feared. The one thing that is common about all of our masks is that there is something foreign underneath. And the only common thing about those people beneath the masks is that we are all prone to judge. We observe people: how they dress, act, speak, and look - and in every aspect of their lives, we critically analyze their character. Occasionally, we judge fairly; but all too often, we assume things about people we barely know. The hardest thing for us to do is to go against that natural, human instinct we all have, and to try our hardest not to make assumptions. It takes a lot for us to overcome that flaw.

For me, it took one of my very dear friends - we'll call her "Laura" - going down a treacherous path, full of peril, surrounded by spite and scorn, before I truly understood the meaning of controlling my instinct to judge.

Laura was a very good person. She, like many, didn't get the best grades; didn't have the best family life; wasn't all that 'popular' by many standards. But she had an ability to love people for who they were, and she had the gift of being who she was, unashamed. She still has those same qualities, but on such a different level so that it's hard to see her as the same person; unless, like me, you are extremely close to her.

It all started with a friend of mine - "Cory". Cory had become concerned about Laura - for quite a while now, Laura had been going around with a crowd of people who we deemed to be - well, we didn't believe them to be the best people, quite frankly. Laura had gone against some of her previously held standards, and Cory naturally wanted to help. She spoke to me one day just before first period.

"Chelsea, I wanted to talk to you about Laura. Is she okay?"

I shrugged. Like many of my friends, I had seen a few changes in Laura, but I was not too terribly concerned. I was convinced she was just going through a normal teenage phase that would soon pass.

"Don't tell anyone, but I think she might be cutting herself," Cory said hesitantly, frowning. "She's worn long sleeves for the past week, and sometimes I see her holding her wrists or rubbing them like they hurt."

Now, don't get me wrong - Cory was a great girl. But she, like so many, jumped to conclusions about people rather quickly, and so when she brought this topic up, only the slightest stirrings of doubt and worry crept into my mind.

"I don't think she has been," I said quickly, objecting - partly to defend Laura and partly because I simply didn't want to believe that she had changed so much in so little time. "I mean, yeah, it adds up if you think about it... but on the other hand, it's not all that suspicious. Lots of people wear long sleeves all the time - and maybe rubbing her wrists is just, I don't know, a habit of hers. But I'll talk to her, just to make sure everything is all right." I went away from this conversation only slightly disturbed, still too naive to consider the possibility that my friend's self-esteem was so low.

I spoke to her on a morning later that week. "Hey, Laura," I greeted. She turned to face me, a worried expression on her face as she gave me a hug. "Are you all right?" I asked, frowning a little.

"Have people - our friends, I mean - been talking about me behind my back?" she asked without preamble. I sighed. There was no way getting around this one. By this time, Cory's theory had spread around our group of friends, and several of them had started avoiding Laura as if she were some incurable disease, just waiting to be caught.

"Well..." I began. Laura waited. "Basically... Cory thinks you're cutting yourself, and a lot of our friends have kind of leaned over to her side of things," I said. Better to say it straight out - beating around the bush would only make her more upset. Her expression turned to confusion and astonishment, but behind her eyes laid a small hint of fear - fear of being discovered.

"How could they assume that about me?" she asked angrily. "They don't even know what's going on in my life."

"I know," I assured her, not wanting her to think I was one of the accusers. "I just don't know how to explain it... you're changing, and everyone is worried." Laura hesitated for only a second.

"You know me, Chels. I would never."

Never is a long time. Three weeks later, she opened up to me.

"I started cutting myself a little while ago," she confessed. "I didn't want you to know about it because... well, you don't just tell people that kind of thing." We were at lunch. Her fingers twisted over themselves nervously, and she wouldn't meet my eyes.

"How bad is it?" I asked quietly. She looked up then, a hard glint of something, almost defiance, in her eyes.

"Would you like to see?" she asked sarcastically. I shrugged. I had never been witness to something like this before, and... well, despite all my worries, I was actually a little curious.

Is that morbid?

"If you think it will help," I said comfortingly. "I'm here for you, whatever happens." Laura looked around to make sure no one was watching, then carefully pulled up one sleeve of her shirt.

What I saw has never left me, not to this day. When she asked if I wanted to see her cuts, I was expecting a few minor scrapes, three or four little lines of red to show where the knife had left its mark. How very naive of me.

Three inches. Three inches of what had once been smooth, beautiful pale skin was now three inches of scarred forearm. Cuts so scrunched together that you couldn't see space between them, overlapping one another so badly that the skin was hardly recognizable as skin anymore. Now it was just a macabre sign of what was happening inside Laura's head.

I reeled back, trying not to let her see the shock that I'm certain crossed my face. She pulled the sleeve down, tears filling her eyes.

"Life's hard lately," she whispered.

All I could do was pull her into a hug, still trying to overcome the sick feeling that had suddenly come upon me. Things were worse than I had imagined.

"How can I help?"

Eventually, one thing always leads to another. Otherwise, how would we ever get anywhere? This thing that started didn't explode as quickly as I had expected. She was still the same old Laura to many of our friends, perhaps just a bit quieter, less outgoing, not so quick to smile. Until she decided to dye her hair black.

I personally don't know what it is about black hair. I don't mind it, and in fact I find it quite attractive on certain people. But many people tend to instantly assume that anyone who has dyed their hair black is now "gothic" or "emo", and from that point forward they are considered pariahs, Untouchables.

So was the case with too many of even our closest friends, including one we will call "Sara". Sara, like Laura, was not a bad person - in fact, she was considered by many a "goody-two-shoes". She got perfect grades, had perfect attendance, perfect behavior, an extremely stable family life; in short, many things to be proud of.

And oh, was she ever proud!

From the first minute Sara saw Laura's new hairstyle - the "emo" black - she refused to speak a word to her. I don't wish to exaggerate this point; I am explaining it exactly as it was, to the letter. Sara would not sit with Laura at lunch, would not socialize with her, and furthermore would unleash the same treatment on anyone who "took Laura's side". Sara was one of those pitiable persons who have the uncanny ability to judge people in an instant. Her premier appraisal was her final judgement. Her word was law. Laura was now an "untouchable", and if you had the nerve to stand up for her, so were you.

Unfortunate Sara. She never understood. And with her - perhaps the biggest tragedy of all - with her, she stole away all but three or four of Laura's friends. If only Sara knew that this was one of the things that eventually made Laura's life take a turn for the worse. Perhaps then she would have done something different.

Laura never really got better, and Sara never fully grasped the concept that no good ever comes from judging people. Sara was still up on her Perfect Pedestal, looking down her nose at Laura in the crumbling Pit of Contempt.

Well, Sara never understood. But I did.

You see, before all this happened - before any of this started - I had been the same way. I had the Sara attitude. "I'm better than her because she dresses... she acts... she wears... she says... she gossips... she doesn't... she does... she believes..." The list goes on and on. I had been just as judgmental as Sara had been. The difference between us now is perspective. I knew the story behind Laura's depression. I knew what was going on, and so I couldn't possibly judge her for the circumstances beyond her control. She was still dear, sweet Laura - and the world was cruel. To Sara, everything was Laura's fault - her appearance, her actions, every minor detail was an act put on to get attention, to gain sympathy, to be noticed.

I shouldn't speak about Sara so harshly. I was the same way, once. Now, my whole world is changed. I no longer see only the black and white; now, I see the millions of shades of grey that separate people - and in doing so, bind them closer together as well.

Today, Laura is doing a little better. She has more friends, she has gotten professional help, she has a better home life. Sara is not quite the same old Sara; she has matured a bit, experienced a bit more. No longer the Perfect Polly, she has adjusted her mindset.

There are a million lessons that could be derived from my story. The one I really hold onto, after nearly a year has passed, is this:

Life is always changing. People are always changing. There is someone behind that mask who only wants to be understood and cared for. That cheerful front is a disguise. The tears can be washed away. The wild animal can be tamed. Anything can happen to anyone, at any time. The only thing we can do is try our hardest to see everyone as a future friend. We can't pass judgement on people we don't understand - because once we make an unjustified assumption, it's hard to take it back. Take a peek behind the mask that's set to fool you.

You may just be surprised at what you find hidden there.