Walking into class is like strolling through a minefield. Waiting outside the door is like standing before the DANGER sign and choosing to ignore it. (Or knowing that you have to ignore it.) I press my expression into a flat mask, hiding behind the indifference that is my shield in this classroom. I won’t let him see my real smile, my real eyes, my real face. He doesn’t have a right to any of it.
The first bell rings. The mask is still in place, though a small crack breaks through when my friend settles into the seat in front of me. Still, his rules are clear: no socializing once you’re in your seat. The cracks mends. My jaw stays clamped shut; it isn’t worth the punishment.
It seems like it might be a better day when the second bell goes off. Still, tension coils in my chest and I know by now that it won’t leave until this period is over. He’s hunched over his desk, eyes flicking over the class. I don’t flinch when they settle on me, and ignore how my stomach tightens. But he moves on and safe safe safe chimes quietly in the back of my head.
He jerks up in his seat and my eyes flash to the door where my desk partner is slipping into class. She’s late and her phone is still in one hand, but a yellow slip that should excuse her is held in the other. That doesn’t seem to matter in the slightest.
When he yells, it fills the room with fire and shrapnel. The word ‘explosion’ almost doesn’t cover the bright flashes of DANGER that seem to roll off of him in waves. He screams (screams) at the girl and sends her off to the office even as she tries to show him the pass.
“I needed to reply to my parents-”
“I don’t want your excuses! Get out of here!”
My muscles tense and my body yells for me to do something. Anything. Sentences sizzle on the tip of my tongue, speeches that I’ve longed to throw at him from Day One. A snarl builds in the back of my throat and my hands clench into fists on my desk. He is the Teacher. The Professional. There is nothing, nothing, that excuses this. He doesn’t get to treat us like we’re gum on the bottom of his shoe. He doesn’t get to gorge himself on the power that comes from scaring his class into submission.
I see the effect his yells have on the class and my chest aches. The aforementioned friend in front of me is shaking, though she tries to hide it. (I know from her hushed hallway whispers that his yelling reminds her of what her father used to do.) The boy behind me, the boy who is constantly joking and lightening the oppressive atmosphere, is silent. The fear is palpable.
Words are my weapons, but I know that the room is oxygen and my open mouth is a match. I force my words down, down, down, and I feel guilt replace them. Bystander, bystander, bystander seems to pound against my skull where fury boiled only moments ago. I don’t even know the girl very well but my stomach flips when I think of how I would feel in her place. Wouldn’t I want someone to stand up for me? Wouldn’t I want to feel like someone saw me and knew that it wasn’t fair?
The class moves on and the guilt continues to cling to my skin. I think of the anti-bullying posters that decorate our walls, broadcasting the safety that counselors and teachers will offer if anyone ever feels threatened. Don’t be a bystander! is encouragingly plastered throughout the school, preached at every assembly. The word is at the forefront of my mind for the rest of the period and I can’t stand to even look at him.
A bully. And I did nothing.
Bystander, bystander, bystander.
When the bell rings and we’re dismissed, he nods in my direction as I leave the class.
“Have a good day, Mikayla.”
I look back at him and my mask is long gone. I say nothing (I’m all too aware of the dwindling oxygen that hovers at the doorway and the fire on my lips) but I know that my glare is not one he’ll forget. He almost looks confused as I turn away and leave without any acknowledgement.
I suppose they do always tell you to just ignore those bullies.