Being a Bystander Made Me a Bully

Originally posted on Open Salon on October 13, 2011:

            In sixth grade, I did perhaps the worst thing I could have done to or for another person—nothing.  That person was a schoolmate named Melanie, and the memory of what I saw her endure that year haunts me to this day.

            Melanie was not ugly or stupid or smelly, as many of our classmates claimed.  She was actually as typical in her look and manner as anyone could be.  She was of average height and average build for an eleven-year-old.  She had brown hair and brown eyes.  She had freckles.  She smiled more than she had reason to, and it was as charming as any smile that any sixth-grader had in the Goetz School in Jackson, New Jersey.

            To be fair, the Jackson School District today is much different from what it was a little over thirty years ago.  Today, it is everything that I wish it could have been when I attended school there.  The facilities are modern and spacious, the schools are professionally administered and staffed, and there is even a brand-new high school one block from where I used to live.  If things then had been as they are now, my parents might not have sent me to private schools after grade six.

            Schools back then had no anti-bullying programs.  The big scare then was drugs.  We learned plenty about that sort of thing, and most of us steered clear of that kind of trouble.  Still, I can’t even say that bullying was a rampant problem.  People ribbed each other, and some people took more abuse than others.  Most of it seemed rather harmless, or, at least, that was what I was happy to believe.

            At that age, I was a coward, plain and simple.  I was highly neurotic, suffering from terrible social anxiety.  I also had a younger brother whose speech delay invited attention and scorn from his schoolmates and from kids in our neighborhood.  I was a middling advocate for my brother, having difficulties of my own, but his best friend was the youngest child of a very amicable and repected family in our part of town.  My shortcomings as an older brother and defender were masked for the time being, as was my shame.  Better older brothers took up the slack, and my brother Mark was, for the most part, safe for the moment.

            In truth, I feared every day that people did not like me, that they enjoyed needling me, that I just did not fit in.  I was correct, but I probably overestimated my importance.  Looking back, I was little more than a twitchy, nervous little chap whose verbal non sequiturs and social gaffes were more puzzling than annoying.  Once in a while, I got a dope slap or a scornful look, but my fear of being around people was far worse than anything I actually suffered by being around them.

            All of this made me the perfect bystander to any kind of injustice that could transpire.  I was insecure, timid, and weak.  I was the last person who would stand up for anyone being  persecuted–perhaps even if I were the victim.

            So when people on my bus started jeering at Melanie, I took a kind of comfort in the fact that I was not important enough to invite such scorn.  When they called her names or pushed her or toppled the stack of books she carried, it was a relief that someone else drew the mistreatment that I so feared.  In time, I learned to look on her with contempt.  I laughed when others put her down.  I smiled when I saw her frown and stare sadly out the bus window as our bus bounced up the road to school.

            Our bus driver, Mrs. Chieffo, set an example we all should have followed.  She stuck up for anyone she believed was being mistreated, but she could only act on what she saw.  She tolerated no injustice that she could perceive.  Sadly, such perception has its limits when you drive a ten-ton vehicle filled with children.

            On more than one occasion, Mrs. Chieffo pulled the bus over and shouted down students who made fun of Chris for farting or me for not combing my hair or Melanie for being generally disgusting.  If any of it were true, she might not have pulled over, but she hated cruelty, and she hated it more when it was based on lies.

            Mrs. Chieffo was an angel, but angels cannot be everywhere.  And so, Melanie suffered the proverbial thousand cuts every day: a bitter word across the aisle, a dirty look from the girl who was assigned to sit next to her, a spitball pelting the back of her head. 

            It only got worse at school.  Our library doubled as a lunchroom, and being on line to get a meal was, to her, like running a gauntlet of insults.  The lunch ladies tried so hard to convince Melanie to ignore the other children.  I am unsure whether any adult ever reported what they saw to the professionals in charge of the school.

            I am convinced, however, that some of the adults in her life knew what was happening.  I remember one winter morning when my bus pulled up to Melanie’s house, and she was standing with a proud, smiling, older couple that most of my bus mates understood to be her grandparents.  In my own internal cruelty, I wondered if they knew how reviled and disdained their granddaughter was in our school.  Today, I truly believe they stood there with her that morning precisely because they knew.  They stood with her and showed her that they were proud, that they loved her, and that she meant the world to them.  Oddly, I can’t remember anyone else’s grandparents coming to a bus stop for any other student that year.

            One would think that the last day of the school year would offer some relief to this poor girl.  The afternoon bus ride would be a forty-five-minute finish line for her to cross, and perhaps the summer could offer her a respite.  So much happens to kids over the summer, and perhaps by September, Melanie’s classmates would mature enough to shed the sharp edge that they so mercilessly took to her self-esteem.

            So sad, then, and ironic, perhaps, that Mrs. Chieffo would buy a few cases of soda and a few dozen bags of chips for us to enjoy as a feast on our way home from school that final day.  Spirits were high, and even Melanie was smiling as she sipped Sprite and munched on Ruffles.  In my bystander cruelty, I magnanimously regarded her as a nonentity worthy of nothing more than anyone’s silent scorn on this, a day that would deliver me home to a summer of freedom from my own fears of social inadequacy.

            Then, someone else saw her grinning.  It was Jon, a heavy kid in the front seat.  Something had just hit him in the back of the head, and he turned around to see her daring to look cheerful.  He was far from certain as to who had thrown whatever innocuous object that had struck him.  Maybe it was Andrew; maybe it was Rob.  And it may only have been a bag of chips that someone had thrown.  Jon, however, picked up a soda can and hurled it at Melanie.

            It hit her right in the temple.  Thinking it to have been an empty can, I burst out laughing. And when I saw her hold her hand to her head and crouch down in her seat,  I pointed, I howled even louder, and I took genuine joy.

            Then I saw blood ooze from between her fingers,.  And I saw the can roll off the seat and heard it hit the floor, not with a tink, but with a thud.  It had been full and unopened.

            Melanie was in tears, and I remember distinctly the sound of her voice as she cried out in pain.  Strangely, she betrayed no sign of humiliation or fear, merely of pain and sadness.  I swear I’ll die before I ever witness again such a horrible yet powerful instance of suffering and yet of grace.

            I stopped laughing instantly.  Everyone went silent.  Mrs. Chieffo pulled the bus over and nearly panicked as she tended to a wound that I saw to be at least an inch long and wide open.  She got Melanie to hold a wad of paper towels to her head, and she dropped her off at Jon’s stop, which was next.  Mrs. Chieffo got off the bus and instructed Jon’s mother to drive Melanie to the hospital.  As we drove away, I saw Jon trying desperately to explain to his mother that he did not mean to hurt Melanie.

           Sure.  He didn’t mean it.

            Neither did Rob.  Neither did Andrew.  Neither did anyone.  We didn’t mean to hurt Melanie.  We just meant to humiliate her.  Even I, who never deigned to say a word to her, had no desire to hurt her.  But none of us could even begin to imagine the harm we did.

            I have neither seen Melanie nor heard a word about her since that June afternoon over three decades ago.  I went to Catholic schools from grade seven onward.  For one sliver of information about her, I would take the same can to my own temple.  To have had the courage to sit with her, introduce myself, munch on some potato chips, sip a Coke, and tell her she’d be home in ten minutes so don’t sweat it, I’d gladly take a beating from the whole sixth grade.

            Justice has it, however, that I won’t get off that easily.

            I have since grown up.  I have learned to intervene.  I have deliberately drawn fire away from the weak.  I have spoken up when I have been afraid.  I have learned to fear something worse than my own self-doubt.

            But for Melanie’s sake, I hope never to forget the shame I felt in being there and doing nothing.  I hope the memory of that day scorches my soul as long as I live.  And may I always remember this axiom for the cowardly: that to step in and take up the cause of the weak—whatever the cost—hurts far less in the long run than the consequences that come with having stood by and watched.

            My prayer for humanity is that we all learn what we truly ought to fear—and not fear what we truly ought to learn.

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