It was my first year of high school gym. I slumped in the bleachers with the rest of my classmates, waiting to be assigned a locker. This is how the first day of anything went—a lot of sitting, waiting and shifty-eyeing other people.
Some girl would squeal in excitement, reminiscing with her friends about a scandalous evening she had over the summer. Everyone sitting around their group leaned in for free deets.
The gym smelled like new sneakers and various scents of Britney Spears’ perfume and Axe Body Spray. Straight hair, strategically placed accessories and clean clothes—our best attempts at first impression making.
I was wearing one of my favorite dresses—a striped purple one I found at the Salvation Army. There was a ring on every single one of my fingers. The one I wore on my middle finger was a plastic eyeball with baby doll lashes. Even the weirdoes dressed to impress on the first day of school.
The hour dragged on, and only a handful of students were assigned lockers. You could tell by the crossed arms and leg shakes that people were starting to get bored and antsy.
I sat transfixed on one boy, who hiccuped a high-pitched cartoonish laugh after calling another boy a “wittle baby pie.” He had large, pink gums and a pair of glasses with inch-thick lenses. The other student, who wore a pair of faded jeans and a sideways smile, sat in a clump with a few of his stone-faced friends and glared at the boy with the glasses. Then he called him a disgusting pile of shit. His friends snorted laughter.
The glasses kid laughed too. After five minutes of listening to them, I became enraged. It was clear that the boy with glasses had some form of autism. Though he seemed to be defending himself just fine, throwing out sing-song, emasculating comebacks, it was clear this was quickly becoming a Lord of the Flies kind of situation. Others were staring at him and cupping their bursts of laugher with their hands.
I stood up in the bottom row of bleachers and called up to the boy with the faded jeans. I shouted, “Hey, what the hell is wrong with you? You should know better. Leave him alone.” My ears surged with blood, as I whittled him down with my eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Don’t tell me you’re sorry,” I seethed.
Then he apologized to the boy with glasses.
Over the years, I had classes with both of them. The guy with faded jeans had a deadpan sense of humor and turned out to have a lot of home life problems. I laughed at his jokes when I was sure he would no longer aim them at loners.
The guy with glasses sat behind me in biology. He picked me flowers and shared his candy with me. I liked to watch him draw super heroes on his Punnett squares and listen to him go off into long tangents about his favorite Marvel characters. He received one of the highest grades in that class.
All throughout school, I was that person who said things in uncomfortable situations. Or I made situations uncomfortable by saying things. One summer I gained 15 pounds after eating Steak and Shake’s five-way chili and Frisco melts with the new boyfriend I was in love with. Everyone thought I was pregnant, so I stampeded the rumor. I stood up in a math class, announcing to my wide-eyed peers that I wasn’t pregnant, just fat and happy, and to tell the others.
Being brave, as some people would define this, had no impact on the extreme levels of loneliness I felt, but it did loosen the amount of knots I carried around inside my body on a daily basis. I spoke my mind to free myself from my internal prison.
A loss of words
I’m approaching 30 now, and I still speak up, but I’m not exactly the same fiery girl who goes sniffing around for things to speak out about, mostly because there’s an endless amount of things I don’t entirely understand.
At the same time, I’ve missed some easy marks to be that person I know myself to be.
When I was on vacation in Virginia, I saw this man pushing a shopping cart full of groceries and a kid with a bowl haircut. The kid was kicking his chubby legs, pointing, and making outrageous proclamations about all the deli food. The man, who was expressionless, white-knuckled the front of his cart. I walked past them.
The sound of crashing metal clanged in my ears, and I swiveled my cart around to see the little boy sobbing into his arms. The man was walking away from him toward the deli counter. Did he really just whip the cart with the little boy into a display?
I didn’t want to assume to worst of this man, but the way he grabbed the cart and jerked it toward him told me that he did intentionally try to hurt the kid.
I held the bottle of wine I selected for the night and stood in the middle of the aisle, staring at the man, following him with my eyes. I felt the words wash over me. I didn’t say them.
A few weekends ago, while I was walking my dog, I saw this woman inching across the street with a full bag in her hands. It was hard to see her face. The streetlights had yet to turn on, but I could see she was pushing her entire body into a cane. She grunted with every step. There was a point where she missed a step and feverishly clung to her cane. I feared she might collapse into the street.
I quickly walked towards her, but my dog started to growl at the sight of this limping figure. I calculated how I’d manage Maya and help this woman get to her car. Then two other figures appeared in the driveway she just came from.
They all appeared to know each other. So, why was no one helping her get to her car? Demands filled my lungs, and I was ready to fling them at these two unmoving idiots. Maya tugged on the leash, jolting toward a loud rustle in some bushes. We followed the sound and shuffled into our home.
It’s times like these I wish I had done something different, spoken the right words or shown compassion for my fellow human being. I understand and identify with the sentiment “not my circus, not my monkeys,” but this is not an excuse for me to bypass my feelings in micro situations where I know I can make a difference.
I think it’s easy to maintain the mindset that we’re only responsible for ourselves. I’m arguing less for massive displays of courage and heroism and more for little acts of common decency. It’s so fucking easy to be kind and make a minuscule impact when the opportunity presents itself.
I want to and can do better.