Many years ago a woman approached me after a conference that I had spoken at, she seemed nervous, and when she got close enough, I saw that her eyes were moist. I didn't recognize her, at first, but then she spoke. I was grabbed by the guts and thrown back years in time. To high school, to that time in my life where bullies ruled the hallways and difference, like it ever is, was a magnet for hatred. I feared school every day of my life. (And, no, unlike what you are told, it didn't get better, but to quote Joan Rivers, I got better.)
One of the teachers in that school was someone that I thought would listen to me, I approached her and spoke about being teased and physically assaulted in the hallways and locker rooms. She laughed and asked me what I expected as if it was my fault. I was wrong in trusting her, I saw her afterwards once, watching as a bully (that's the word we use so that we don't hurt the bullies feelings by calling them what they were 'violent bigots') called me a particularly, in her mind, clever nickname. This was who was standing in front of me. Age had changed her too much for me to recognize but that voice, I remembered that voice.
She introduced herself. She apologized for not listening and not helping, and then she asked me if I hated her. I didn't hate her, I didn't remember her, she wasn't different enough from others who were unhelpful, from others who broke my trust as a child, to stand out. So no, I didn't actively hate her. I was silent for a moment before responding and noticed that now tears were falling. She filled the silence by saying, "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry." I spoke up and told her that I didn't hate her. I didn't say anything else, I didn't talk about how my ability to trust had been forever damaged by her and by others like her. I just said "No, I don't hate you."
She tried to explain her behaviour but I asked her to stop. I told her that I didn't want explanations, the apology was enough.
Then she asked me, "Is there anything I can do?"
I missed the opportunity.
Joe and I went to see the movie, Moonlight, yesterday and I was powerfully moved by the story. In it the subject of bullying is raised and presented as how it is experience, rather than how it is explained away, it is presented as social violence. It shook me. Deeply.
I've thought about the movie a lot since we saw it and I identified with the victim in a variety of different ways. And then...
I remembered her, standing if front of me and asking, 'Is there anything I can do?"
And I remember letting her off the hook.
Of course there are things she can do. She can dedicate herself, for the rest of her life, to speaking up, to stop being a silent witness to the ongoing social punishment of difference. Simply use her voice in places where she can, recognizing that it's not always safe to do so, to intervene.
I have had people, unexpectedly, come to my side when others are pointing, laughing, staring, name calling, making faces and noises. I've had people publicly call out other for being mean, for being hateful or for being intentionally cruel. It astonishes me every time, because it doesn't happen often. It takes bravery.
So, I should have said, "Being a bully is a violent way of being a coward, speaking up is a positive way to show bravery. It's time to be brave."
And it is.
It's time to be brave.