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The Bystander Effect
Hermaan Hesse: “Some of us think holding on makes us strong but sometimes it is letting go.”
I have decided that Mr. Hesse is right, that letting go is what makes us truly strong. So I am going to be the strongest. I am going to let go.
The day it happened was the opposite of cliché. It was sunny, clouds scattered sparingly over the horizon, a small breeze. The bridge over the motorway was empty; it being a Friday evening though, the road beneath was filled with cars, hurrying home for the weekend. You watch her hand softly touch the metal framing; she caresses the intricate design with her fingertips, her hand slowly moving further and further up the bar. You notice her feet are bare, clean but with remnants of healing wounds. They are slow as they walk; they don’t drag as such, but they lack a spring. As she makes her way up the bridge, she lifts her head. The sound of the cars in the wind fill her ears as she looks out over the ledge. The height scares her; she wishes that the framework below her feet would give out and collapse; she wishes there were an easier way. As she nears the peak of the bridge, she holds onto both sides of the railing, like a child clutching both their parent’s hands. You begin to fully realise her intentions, that she means this, that this is no false alarm. Her breathing is slow and calm, yet her heart beats faster with every passing second. Her mind is clear; she knows just as well as you what will happen.
Her legs shake as one by one they lift over the metal bars. As she stands on the other side of the railing, she clings to the bars, her safety, her sanity. She slowly turns her feet, so she stands facing the road. You notice her brush the hair from her face, and see that her face is wet. She watches, one by one, as the cars drive underneath her. A horn of car startles her; her hand stumbles and her foot slips. She gasps, but no scream comes out of her quiet mouth.
The car that turns the corner slams the breaks, but she is quicker. As her hand unclenches from the bar and her fingertips graze the metal, her eyes are wide and her mind alive.
She lets go of all her pain, all her anger, all her hurt as she lets go of the bar. She lets go of the words they said, the notes they passed, the looks they gave. She lets go of all those nights she lay awake crying, the days she spent alone, the lunchtimes she spent being victimized. She lets go of their torment. She lets go of her parent’s non-existent concern. She lets go of everything. She just simply lets go.
The hall is filled with loud silence. The few standing teachers either grasp the walls or slide to the floor. No one breathes. No one blinks. Girls sit in their seats, shoulder to shoulder, tears simultaneously dampening their cheeks. From the outside, the hall is filled with a school full of students and teachers in the first phase of grief. But the closer you look you notice nonchalant faces, distracted by the trees outside the doors, staring at their phone screens. And when you look even closer, you see a small group of students, near the back corner, with small, discrete grins staining their faces. Their eyes tell all: mission accomplished. You knew long ago what they were doing, but you didn’t believe that they would take it this far. Secretly, you don’t think this is entirely what they wanted either. Small groups of people begin to slowly leave, their hands rubbing their eyes, shock taking over their bodies. The group near the back all look around at each other; yet when eye contact is made, their eyes dart away.
The group’s leader makes his way out of his chair, beckoning for his group to follow. They slowly obey, one by one they begin to move after him. As they make their way out of their row of chairs, you notice a single girl, left sitting down amongst the group. You notice the girl standing beside her nudge her on the shoulder, urge her to stand up. But the girl just sits there. She just sits there and stares at the group’s leader, her eyes penetrating his. He glares at her, daring her to say something. From where you look on, it looks like she is about to conform with the group as she stands, but she opens her mouth and ineligible words come out. She holds her forehead in her hands momentarily before her agonizing scream filled the hall. As she pushes past the other people, the group watch after her, unable to comprehend what just happened. You notice that whilst they watch her, none follow.
Once again you watch from a distance as the group begin their search for their new victim. They find him under a tree, alone with his music, eyes closed in the shade of the leaves. As the group stands around, you squint your eyes to see the leader kick the boy’s crossed legs. You see him aggressively pick the boy up and shove him against the tree by his shirt collar. You turn your eyes away momentarily, before glancing back, to see the boy slumped on the ground, his hands protecting his face as the leader continues to kick him. Without a moment’s notice, the leader is suddenly pushed over to the side. You notice the girl that left his group stand behind him, screaming and making expressive arm gestures towards him. As he stands again the girl points her finger at his chest, before hissing sharp words into his face. She picks the boy up off the ground, shows him the direction of the nurse’s office and walks away, this time more confident than before. The leader turns to his group, laughing and brushing off his embarrassment. But he is acting for no audience. His group avoids eye contact. One by one, they leave the pack too. They walk towards other clusters of bystanders, away from the group that they once called friends.
You remember the same incident taking place for the previous months, day after day, relentless torment. But beforehand there was no interference from the girl; she was one of the abuse initiators. Beforehand no one dared stand up to the leader; they were scared of the abuse they administered. Beforehand, when none of this had happened, you were innocent. But now you are as guilty as the group leader.
You are a murderer. You assisted in the death of a teenage girl. Without meaning to, you made someone kill themselves. You are the bystander, as guilty as the bully himself.