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From the Sidelines I Watched

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Austin. Sierra. William. Olen. One girl whose name I don't even remember, but she still makes the list because I haven't forgotten her face. So who are these people? Friends? Kids who lived down the street from me? Kids I passed in the hallways on the way to lunch at school? Kids who I watched take insult after insult day after day, who changed schools when they couldn't handle it anymore, who waited and waited for someone to help them even though no one ever did? Yeah, all of the above. And what did I do? Nothing. From my safe spot on the sidelines, I watched.

No, I didn't call them names or shove them into lockers, but I was still a bully, just a bully with a different name. A bully called negligence. It's easy to disassociate yourself, to conveniently forget that you're there too, just passing by or heading to class. "Not my business," you say and keep walking. I'm guilty of it, of pretending the insults were really playful banter, the punch to the arm was really a friendly nudge; all the little things we notice but always refuse to see. All the people I talk to now tell me that bullying didn't happen too often at their schools. I didn't, huh? Perhaps I assume too much, but maybe they were all just similar to me, never acknowledging the truth.

Why then? Why lie about it, why store it away in some dark and dank corner of the brain? It's simple, the same reason I did: guilt. Every time I passed someone being bullied, a small voice (a voice I ignored) would tell me to do something. I was raised to stand up for myself and others, yet I couldn't say a word to a couple of thugs waling away on some poor sap? Of course not, because then I wouldn't have been a bystander anymore. You become a target the moment you decide to help. That fear, that inability to think of anyone other than yourself, that's what real bullying is. Bullying will never fade into nonexistence, no matter how many schools adopt some pathetic anti-bullying policy or threaten to suspend anyone caught bullying. Not as long as people keep facilitating it through non-action. We can all sit around and feel guilty about the people we didn't help as kids, hide the fact that we let down our friends and ourselves, but does that change anything? "Bullying is really terrible and should be stopped, but I think I'll let someone else someone else handle it." Wrong. That's the same attitude we've always had, just rephrased and in a slightly different context.

One of the people I mentioned earlier, Austin, was an autistic boy I went to elementary school with. Nobody in my class really knew what autism was, especially not Austin. We just thought it meant something was wrong with his head. He was "Austin the Autistic" to us; yeah, kids can be so clever, can't they? Kids played pranks on him, told him had to sit down to use the urinal, taunted him with words that inexplicably made him angry, and many other things as well. Sometimes I joined in as well. It was all in good fun, right? Teasing the weird kid? But underneath the laughter, I knew we were being cruel. I never stopped them in all the time I knew Austin. Eventually, his parents enrolled him in parochial school for a better environment. I haven't seen him in many years. Of all the kids I've seen bullied, his story has always bothered me the most. I want to apologize, but I've never had the chance. So Austin, I'm sorry. I'm sorry I made fun of you. I'm sorry I didn't stand up for you. I know it must have hurt to have been treated so poorly. Truly, I'm sorry.

I'm sure we all have a tale like this tucked into the pages of memory. Most probably feel the same sort of guilt I do towards it. So what can we do other than apologize to person that's no longer there? Well, I have an idea, a simple first step that everyone needs to take. Confess. Admit to the things we've done wrong. How can we ever hope to do good if we never recognize that we first did wrong? We have to confess that we're bullies too, bullies of a different kind, bullies of negligence.

I'll start. Teen Ink, don't make this anonymous. Don't prevent me or anyone else from doing the right thing. And if you all do, I'll try again and again until you don't. I'm Zachary W, and I was a bully. I pretended not to notice, not to care. I shrugged my shoulders and moved on. I was always a bully. But I'm not today. I'm not right now. I'm facing myself for the first time. I can never right past wrongs, but I can work to make the future better. And I'm starting right now, sharing everything with you. I will no longer stand idly by as my fellow human beings are degraded, cast aside, made to feel worthless. I will not let the hatred continue. I'm Zachary Wallis, and I've made my decision. Now it's your turn.



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