When I was a kid, I played the violin. I use the term “play” loosely here. I once told my parents that I needed a new violin because mine was broken. It squeaked when I played it, and other people’s instruments didn’t squeak. My parents then had to tell me what “operator’s error” was. It’s a funny moment to look back on, but at the time I was really disappointed that the squeaking was something that I had control over, and not due to a faulty instrument. I digress. Despite my squeakiness, I kept with the violin and in seventh grade I was part of my junior high orchestra. Orchestra class was located in its own building, separate from all of the other classrooms at school. It was a little world of its own, which was nice, but it was always stressful to make the trek back to the main campus once orchestra was over. We were given seven minutes between classes, and even if I kept my head down and didn’t get distracted, that was a tight time limit for me. In addition to the time restriction, I didn’t like that walk because it meant I had to make my way through the ninth grade hallway, which might as well have been a den full of wolves as far as I was concerned. I tried desperately to blend in while in that hallway. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself because I knew there were a dozen things that a ninth grader could make fun of a seventh grader like me for. My overalls, for starters. Throw in a haircut that looked like Darth Vader’s helmet with bangs and you’ve got a recipe for a huge dork. Luckily most days the 9th grade girls were too busy gossiping and the boys were too busy tossing footballs and harassing each other to notice me. Every time I passed through that hallway unscathed I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I had succeeded in my quest for invisibility, and that’s the way I wanted it.
I wasn’t the only one who walked this route from the orchestra room, there were a bunch of us. Most of them were friends outside of orchestra, which was an advantage, because that meant they got to walk back to campus in a group. Everyone who’s been to school knows there’s strength in numbers. If you had a group, you were protected in a way. I was a sad, groupless individual. An island, if you will. I wasn’t the only one. There was an island who walked a few paces ahead of me everyday. Her name was Nicole, and she was an overweight girl with extremely tight ringlets in her hair. Her eyes were slightly crossed, and she wore over sized glasses that made her look like a cartoon drawing of a book worm. I’m not saying any of this to be critical of Nicole, rather to give you an idea of how hard junior high was for her. She didn’t fit in. There were lots of things that people made fun of her for. She was an island like me. I wish we had been part of a beautiful chain of islands, like Hawaii, or the Canary Islands. Instead we were like the island of Nauru, which might actually be the saddest most lonely place on Earth (seriously, google it). Nicole was a sad and lonely island, dressed in overalls, packing all of her school books in her backpack to avoid having to use her locker between classes. Add a violin to the mix and you’ve got the trifecta of dorkiness. I know, because I invented that trifecta. It’s hard out there for Naurus like me and Nicole.
Despite any similarities Nicole and I might have had, we walked separately from each other. On a particularly hot day, I was keeping pace a few feet behind her as we entered the ninth grade hallway. It wasn’t more than a few feet in that a small group of boys cut me off and started walking behind Nicole. I stopped in my tracks and backed away from them, but Nicole kept going, seemingly unaware of the boys that were following her. I started to panic. What were they doing? Why were they following her? I felt a surge of protective instincts rush through me as I picked up my pace and began to follow them. I had walked behind Nicole for long enough to know that she went a different direction from me at the end of the hallway, which meant that I would run the risk of being late to my next class. But I couldn’t help it, I was worried about her. The boys were silently snickering and pushing each other, as if to egg each other on. One of the boys reached in his folder and pulled out a big, rectangular neon yellow sticker that had the words OVERSIZE LOAD printed on it. It was like the sign you see on trucks when they’re towing trailer houses. I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I pushed through the crowded hallway and watched one of the boys put the sticker on Nicole’s huge backpack. As soon as the sticker was on, the boys stopped following Nicole and burst into laughter. Nicole didn’t flinch, she just kept walking to class.
I knew I couldn’t let her walk down any more crowded halls with that sticker on her bag, but I was scared. I didn’t want those boys to yell at me or call me a loser, or worse, put a sticker on my backpack tomorrow. I still remember the feeling in my stomach as I ran ahead to catch up with Nicole. I felt like I was going to pass out, or throw up. For one, I was definitely going to be late for class now. But more than that, I couldn’t stand that someone would be so mean, especially to someone as pure and helpless as Nicole. Nicole with the ringlets and big glasses. Nicole with her backpack stuffed full of books. Nicole who was just trying to make it from class to class in one piece. I knew that I had to get the sticker off before she saw it. I caught up with her as she was rounding the corner to enter the courtyard where half of the school was gathering for lunch. I reached my hand out and caught the corner of the sticker. In the process, I also kind of punched Nicole in the shoulder. Whoops. So much for going unnoticed. She whipped around and stared right at me with angry eyes as her glasses slid to the end of her nose. I froze, my hand still stretched out.
“Um, I, uhh,” I started. I felt like an idiot. She looked at me defensively at first, as if to say, what’s your problem??, but she didn’t say anything. Maybe she saw my violin case and overalls as a symbol of solidarity.
“You have something on your backpack,” I said shyly, pointing my finger.
“My WHAT?” she said confusedly. I cleared my throat.
“Nicole, there’s something on your backpack. I was trying to get it off for you.”
She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and swung her bag around. There it was, bright and bold, OVERSIZE LOAD. I still remember exactly what her face looked like when she saw the sticker. It was the saddest, most hurt face I had ever seen on a person. I felt a rush of guilt and disappointment in myself. I should have tried harder to take the sticker off without her noticing.
“Thank you,” she said quietly as she pulled the sticker off and crumpled it up.
“I’m sorry,” I said, but I knew it wasn’t enough. Nothing would ever be enough, and there were no words for how sorry I was.
Nothing ever came of me and Nicole. Maybe if this was a movie, she would have become my best friend, and two islands would have stuck together to be their own group. There would be a lesson in there about making friends. My life wasn’t a movie, and Nicole wasn’t a character written into it to save me, nor was I written into her life to save her. We were just two lonely people who had shared a very sad moment together. I felt protective of Nicole because I knew that I was Nicole. On any other day, that sticker could have been meant for my back. Would anyone follow me down a scary hallway to pull it off? Would anyone have even noticed the group of boys following me?
Life creates bullies, and I’m sad to report that they don’t just quit being bullies upon graduating high school, or turning 20, or getting married and having their own kids. Regardless of your age, you will always know bullies in your life. Likewise, there will always be people that bullies pick on. But what about the people who aren’t the bullies, and who aren’t being picked on? I would venture to say that most of us aren’t bullies. We probably don’t actively seek out fat people to slap stickers on. We probably don’t push or harass anyone in the halls at school, or make fun of someone because their dad doesn’t have a high paying job, or because their parents are divorced. But what do we do when we see those things being done? Do we cower and remain silent, to protect ourselves? Or do we pick up our pace, and do what we can to stand up for these people?
There have been times in my life where all I wanted was for one person to befriend me. I was bullied pretty badly in sixth grade. It started out with a small group of girls, but then eventually the entire sixth grade was mean to me. I had nowhere to eat lunch, nowhere to sit on the bus. I spent recess in the nurse’s office because no one would play with me. Finally, one girl reached out to me. Out of the entire sixth grade, there was only one. That girl meant the world to me at that time in my life. Her kindness was everything. I know that not everyone in sixth grade hated me. The majority of them were just following orders from the queen bee. I don’t fault them for not saying anything either. I think they were probably just glad that they had a people to eat lunch with, and a place to sit on the bus, and I understand that. Sometimes we remain silent because we don’t want to surrender our spot in the safety zone. We have to stop letting our fear of being bullied keep us from standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. Like everything in life, kindness starts with us. Who knows where it will spread from there? Your example might be all someone needs to stand up when they see someone else being bullied.
I’ve been googling different islands, and I’m noticing that most islands aren’t really on their own at all, they’re part of a chain of islands. I guess that’s because even islands know that one isn’t enough; you need backup. There’s strength in numbers, after all. If everyone who was picked on felt like they had a backup person, maybe there would be less Naurus in the world, and more Hawaiis. There are three types of people in life: those who seek out backpacks to put stickers on, those who see the stickers and do nothing, and those who take the stickers off. Who are you? And who do you want behind you when you’re the one being followed, which will inevitably happen? I’m not saying that you have to jump in and break up every fight, or risk your own physical safety in the name of being a hero. Our gestures don’t have to be big and grandiose. Maybe all you can do back someone up, and be there for them during a hard moment. Sometimes that is enough.