It happened, as many childhood traumas do, in the school cafeteria. In eighth grade, I ate my PB&J or lunch room fare every day with my best friend, Laurie*, and her friend Kate. We were neither popular nor unpopular—merely part of the vast junior high middle class. As we shared our Hostess snack cakes and dissected the minutiae of our lives each day, I discovered that I didn’t like Kate. She tended to brag about her dad’s income a lot. Though she was an average adolescent like most of us, gawky with glasses and braces, she regularly made biting comments about many other girls, particularly those whose families were known in our small town to be on welfare. And while she was a solid “B” student on her own merits, she had no qualms about cheating for an “A.”
Though I came to dislike the time I spent with Kate, it never occurred to me to stop eating lunch with her, or even to ask Laurie why they were friends—I blindly accepted her as part of a package deal. Thus we were still dining together at the end of the school year, when the yearbooks were passed out. Our school ritual was to bring our yearbooks to the cafeteria, and visit each other’s tables during lunch, thus gathering all of our desired signatures in one fell swoop. On that day, Kate surveyed the cafeteria, carefully choosing her targets, and motioned over two classmates, Chris and Terri. Both girls were the antitheses of Kate: They came from lower-income homes, wore second-hand clothing and were in need of dental work. They were quiet and shy, the kind of girls who deserve better but usually pass invisibly through the halls and do without invitations to the homecoming dance.
Chris and Terri walked reluctantly to our table. They had no relationship with Kate, and seemed somewhat nervous to be singled out by her. However, when she smiled and sweetly told them that she wanted to sign their yearbooks, they handed her the tomes. Kate opened Terri’s yearbook, turned to Terri’s picture, and proceeded to scribble out her photo. Amazingly, after witnessing this, Chris permitted the same defacement. The most deplorable thing was that I watched it all and said and did nothing. I wasn’t afraid of Kate. I was an only child, supremely confident, and I remember thinking to myself, “These girls need to stick up for themselves. I would.”
Ah, but it wasn’t as simple as that. I thought about Chris and Terri all summer, about how they must have felt that day, about how even the purchase of those (not inexpensive) yearbooks must have been a financial sacrifice for their parents. And I realized my responsibility, as a human being, to help and defend those who can’t defend themselves.
I started high school profoundly changed. I never ate lunch again with Kate; eventually, that meant not hanging out with Laurie, so I made a new best friend (upgrade!). Most importantly, I never again allowed bullying to happen in front of me without speaking up. My class had three notorious bullies, and I tangled with each of them throughout high school, almost always in defense of others. It made for some unpleasant days, but the alternative would have been unthinkable. Speaking up for others actually made me stronger and even more confident. And then a funny thing happened—by the time my senior year rolled around, I had become one of the most popular kids in school! That was never my motivation. I only wanted to help. And I hope that when I interceded for other kids, it made them feel less alone. But I am still haunted by the fact that I didn’t do it for Chris and Terri.
* All names have been changed.