I’ve spent most of the last hour trying to make sense of something that took place earlier this evening, unsure if I did the right thing, as I hope I did…or if I did the entirely wrong thing and am now only realizing it.
I got a phone call at the office this afternoon from a high school student.
Editorial Note: As both a matter of legality and journalistic ethics I cannot and will not use her name because she is a minor, so for the sake of contrast between the other players in this piece, I’ll simply call her Q.
The reason Q called my office is because both she and her girlfriend have been bullied and threatened by another student, and had reached a breaking point. She said she’d tried going to administrators and the police, but nothing had been done yet, so she was going public to make the district do something about it.
During the district’s monthly forum tonight, Q, her significant other and their families aired their grievances and quickly found themselves upset and angry because they ran headlong into their own wall of legalities, which the district officials clearly outlined and explained, to their credit.
Even so, Q walked out of the meeting visibly exasperated, even though one of the officials personally took her and her family aside for a private conversation to try and help find an acceptable short-term solution, while the long-term solution would be determined.
As much as I work to remain as objective as humanly possible in my job, there is still no way of getting around the fact that try as I may to appear otherwise, I am still human. Seeing Q’s frustration as she looked at the group of adults and classmates around her in irate amazement that they either consciously or subconsciously could not see her plight awoke my own frustrations when I was in a similar spot at that age.
When the meeting ended, Q was nowhere to be seen. I figured she and her family had left, but I at least hoped she’d gotten somewhere with the officials. It was obvious she’d gotten their attention, but that’s not always enough for the person in the middle of a conflict.
I grabbed my camera and notebook and was heading out the door when I got stopped by another official who pulled me into a conversation he thought I could apparently contribute to.
Two other students were talking about what Q had said and said they were interested in helping, but they also thought she was lying, or at the least, embellishing what she’d gone through.
“I’ve been coming to this school for four years now and it’s not as bad as she says it is. I’ve never seen anyone get bullied once and I know a lot of kids here!” One of them said.
In that moment, as soon as the words hit the air, a switched flipped in my head. It doesn’t happen very often these days, but it’s the one that allows me to access all the theoretically correct things to say.
Editorial Note: When I say it doesn’t happen often, I mean once in a blue moon, if I’m really damn lucky. Ask any of my friends who can manage to corral me into anything resembling a conversation these days and they’ll tell you I possess a learned talent for clear diction when I’m choking on my own toes.
I took about five minutes and explained that just because you don’t see something, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. That if they really wanted to help Q and other students like her out, they would take the initiative to sit down with her and educate themselves on what she’s going through by doing nothing but listening. That they may find out things which they didn’t know or never considered, but they could then take that knowledge and use it to not only help the Q’s of the world but also bring about change in other people who are equally oblivious.
Because that is how we change a culture and if we’re lucky, that culture can change the world.
As they left and I was once again heading out the door, Q had come back and was talking to another official, whom I’ve gotten to know quite well in the year I’ve been here and vice-versa.
I wasn’t surprised that I got pulled into yet another conversation, because at least this time, I knew the reason why.
Q and I talked for about the same five minutes, but it was a much different context. She explained that while she felt she’d gotten her message out to people who seemed interested in helping her, the frustration, anxiety, desperation and rage she felt at continuing to be harassed and now threatened was just more than she could take.
She talked about how she and her antagonist had once been friends, but now he used his knowledge of her as a weapon. Things like her mother, who’d died when she was a toddler, and how infuriating it was that she couldn’t stop him from pushing her buttons.
I was killing time online the other day, when I came across something that managed to wedge itself in my mind ever since, and not for a good reason either.
The problem I have with this, aside from the inherent sanctimoniousness, is the idea that what we needed to get through that part of my life was a better version of me, when in fact, I believe with every fiber of my being that I needed someone worse.
What I needed was someone who wasn’t scared to meet force with force and to use my anger in all the ways I could rationalize and justify, in order to fend off my own bullies and antagonists in the most decisive terms possible.
When I look at me, that’s always what I see.
But as I sat there listening to Q, I understood I was actually looking at a person who was within maybe five degrees of who I was at that age.
Q didn’t need to hear my anger. She needed to know that someone could truly relate to her and she wasn’t alone.
In the end, I probably said too many things about myself in those few minutes. Things that I’ve admitted to people I care about very much, only to realize later I should’ve been both smarter and more guarded with them. I said them anyway, because if there is one thing you absolutely cannot and must not half-ass, it’s empathy.
When I finished, Q replied with something so surreal that even now, it makes my head almost spin just thinking about the look of genuine surprise on her face as the words came out.
“But there’s nothing wrong with you,” she said.
The only answer I could give was, “If you only knew.”
At that point, my official buddy returned to the conversation and Q left not long after, having done something I don’t think she was physically or emotionally capable of when she’d walked in two hours earlier.
She smiled. It didn’t last long, but it was enough.
And as we watched her leave, my official buddy leaned over and said to me, somewhat hyperbolically, “I think you might have saved someone’s life tonight.”
I don’t want to think about what I did in those terms, if I’m honest. The main reason is that I didn’t plan on saving anyone, because I know I can’t save anyone. I also don’t want to consider the possibility that it ends up not being enough and I get a call tomorrow or in a few weeks saying something happened to Q, either by someone else’s actions or her own.
I guess what is bothering me the most is that I crossed a line I swore years ago I wouldn’t cross again.
I’m not supposed to get involved any more. What happens to other people isn’t my concern. I’ve been to that well too many times and I know it’s dangerous to even go near it now.
When I got home tonight and the combination adrenaline/emotional high finally began wearing off, I was so disoriented that I finally asked a friend, What the hell am I doing?!
I suppose her response says it all.
“You are you.”