Maria was a girl who was not so different from other girls in my neighborhood. As young kids, we spent the majority of our time in 6th grade avoiding her because of one person’s little rumor. They said she smelled. Badly. And if she smelled, then that means she has some sort of disease. As that rumor spread, she became lonelier, to the point where people wondered if she had any friends … or anyone outside of her family. Throughout that year, I never remember actually smelling this scent that everyone said permeated her pores, but, as someone who got picked on for his weight, I didn’t need any more reasons to draw attention to myself. If I could make it out of elementary school without doing any number of little things that would ostracize me from my friends, I’d go somewhere where I could make a new reputation.
Sometime in May of that school year, we sixth graders got our autograph books, hoping everyone who we built relationships with would have something insightful (or at least entertaining) to say in these books. One day, as we were getting escorted from the lunch room to our homeroom, Maria pulled me aside and silently asked “Can you sign my book?” The sheepish way she asked, with eyes cutting us to see if I’d follow through on her request, hurt my heart. As long as I remember anyways. I walked towards her and said, “Sure.”
For a second, I hated all the people who stared at us for such an innocuous act. Why did these people (because it was some of the boys in the class who started the rumor) even start that rumor? Doesn’t Maria get a chance to enjoy her (presumed) last year at this school? Will she have to endure this forever if these people follow her into the next schools? Will any of us apologize for our complicity in this matter, or will we sheepishly ignore what’s happening?
To my knowledge, no one ever laid a hand on her, but the mental effects of ostracization by her fellow students would have given a weaker person reason to discontinue their life. Argue all you want about the merits of suicide, but there’s no argument about the effects of bullying. Some of us have good, effective tools for counteracting bullies (including fists). Introverts and those of us raised to turn the other cheek don’t always feel like they have those options. We’re stuck in a strange position where we get bullied for no apparent reason, then get bullied for trying to report it, then told by some adults that the person bullied needs to resolve their own conflicts, but they’re never taught how to resolve that situation.
It’s a vicious cycle and one I can no longer take lightly. We need to create safe environments for all students to succeed, and we ought to get involved when we see that’s not happening. We can’t stand by while this happens right in front of us. If it does, you ought to give yourself a wedgie and hang yourself off a flagpole. Salute!
Mr. Vilson, who sees Maria every so often and wonders what to say …