I was not bullied in school. I was not a bully, either. Or at least, I didn't believe I was.
But when you stand aside and let others behave cruelly, does that make you any better than the bullies? And just because I was passive and quiet, did that mean I was a "nice girl" like I thought I was?
What about that night in Junior High when I ran through a field with my friends, one of the girls lagging behind the rest, begging us to stop and wait for her, and finally collapsing on the ground because physical problems wouldn't allow her to keep up with us? Someone else said we should leave her there, so we did. Alone. But it wasn't my idea, and I felt bad for her, so it wasn't my fault . . . right?
What about that stomach-clenching day in High School when one of my closest friends pulled me aside to say, "If you sit with that girl at lunch again today, you are going to sit alone with her. We are moving to another table. Come with us." I said I couldn't. I sat with the girl nobody else would sit with and listened to her talk about the sequel she dreamed of writing for her favorite movie (dreamed of me writing it for her) and all I could think about was how much I missed my friends. I had no common ground with her, nothing to talk about, and I was too self-involved to care about her interests, but I was the "nice girl" and so I did the "nice thing" and continued to sit with her. My friends didn't hate me or ostracize me for doing it, though they did insist that I not hang out with her while I was hanging out with them during the rest of the school day. I lost nothing more than an hour of my time on weekdays by eating with her. But when the semester ended, I went out of my way to make sure my classes did not sync with hers, and that we did not share the same lunch hour anymore. I ignored her in the hallway. I ignored her everywhere. I did not even have the courage to say I no longer wanted to be her friend; I cut her off cold the first day of the new semester. But that didn't make me cruel . . . did it?
And what about the note I slipped into another girl's locker -- back in seventh grade when I was so desperately alone and so terribly envious of the close friendship of two girls I admired -- the note that told a girl (one I secretly wanted to be friends with) in no uncertain terms that she was a horrible sinner destined for Hell? I happened to come down the hall later when she was standing at her locker, note crumpled in her trembling hand, sobbing against her best friend's shoulder. Her best friend accused me of writing it; I stared at her blankly and denied it. They never spoke to me again. But they had barely spoken to me to begin with, and deep down, I felt like I was the one who had been wronged, even though I knew, consciously, that I was the one who had wronged them.
I was never popular, never important in the hierarchy of any of the schools I attended, which were many. I thought of myself as the outsider, who could stand safely on the sidelines and watch as others fought for their positions on the food chain. I thought that my standing by and doing nothing didn't have much impact on the lives of others.
But I still wonder, so many years later, what would have happened if I'd stood up for the girl they gossiped about, who was physically harassed by some guys on the back stairs for her weight, even if I was a nobody who assumed nobody would listen to her? What would have happened if I'd said "Hi!" to the guy I thought was cute, who I passed by in the hall without a word because he had a thick accent and dark skin and was an outsider himself and, above all else, didn't go to my church? What would have resulted if I had started that petition after all, the one I told my friends about, in which I accused one of our teachers of speaking to, looking at, and touching female students inappropriately, after he did so to one of my friends? The one which that very friend talked me out of starting, because she was afraid of how she would be treated by others, if others knew? Did I set it down because she asked me, or because suddenly I was afraid of how I might be treated as the one who stood up against a teacher in the first place?
The bullies who lead the clique aren't the only issue, and aren't the only kind of bully. There are also the follower bullies who join in, those who deny their own behavior because it feels justified, those who are hiding inside skins of authority or adulthood, and those who stand by, watching in silence as someone else's life is ruined simply because they are not the ones being persecuted. In the course of your life, which kind of bully have you been?
(Inspired by Young Adult Authors Against Bullying.)