There’s nothing like going into school wishing with all your heart you weren’t there. Throughout the entirety of a student’s career, they suffer through days when they are numbed by the constant routine of homework, cramming, notes, and more homework, but I’m not talking about mindless boredom. Sure, I’ve suffered from these undeniable effects of school life, but until I walked into school and for the first time felt truly afraid, I never once thought that there could be a worse aspect than dullness.
I wasn’t meant to be afraid; my dad and school officials assured me that my name was never mentioned during the calls and meetings, that no one could possibly know it was me who spoke up, which led to a slew of other events and ended with a teacher being suspended as they more thoroughly examined her teaching styles. They told me I had nothing, nothing at all, to fear.
But as I drove in front of the school that Monday, I knew that, unintentionally or not, they had lied to me. A Channel 27 news van was parked outside the flagpole, a crowd of dark-clothed figures circling it like ants. At the sight of it, I went cold inside, and suddenly I couldn’t stop paying attention to my arms, stick-straight and rigid in front of me, with hands that suddenly clawed around the steering wheel. I kept my eyes forward, back straight, my brother the only witness. He asked quietly if I was okay; since we go to school together, he won the right to know what had happened so that he could prepare for what could happen. I wasn’t able to say anything, afraid that if I did, he’d see just how terrified I was to enter that school. So I just nodded.
As I walked the halls, I noticed how many people were wearing black. Too late, I remembered my brother’s warnings about Facebook comments declaring that to support the teacher, everyone should wear black as long as she was suspended. I shucked my black sweatshirt as soon as I could, careful to do it in the bathroom so I wouldn’t be called out on it or confirm any suspicions. But I’d already crossed the school to reach my locker, and felt like a coward for every step I’d taken. My heart dropped as I recalled the principal, who had listened to me in the first place and had paid for it with his reputation among the righteous students and their highly-involved parents. It was his first year, and every day of it he had stood out in the hallway to greet people passing by. That day, they all ignored him. I smiled at him, and he at me, and to this day I regret that he saw me in that sweatshirt. He’d done so much for me, and I looked like I was hiding, wearing black among the other clueless students who believed they were making a statement. He didn’t stand in the hallway for the rest of the day, so he never saw that I took it off.
I remember how my stomach literally twisted in the face of all that opposition, so many people who were so angered for this one teacher, who all felt it was unjust and so entirely cruel without knowing everything that she had done. None of them knew much at all, honestly, though I only realized this slowly, over the course of the next few days, and ever since. At the time, it felt like lasers were concentrated on me, all knowing what I had said and hating me for it. I tried not to rush to class, but I was filling with the need to run as far away as I could get.
Of course I didn’t, but that was mainly due to the conversation I managed to catch the tail-end of as I entered my first hour class. My teacher was talking to a few of her co-workers, and it was easy to deduce what they were discussing when she said “-and I told her ‘Look, I’d love to support you, but what she did was illegal.’”
A trickle of relief seeped through me, breaking through the dread that had hardened and encased my innards since last Friday. That teacher made it possible for me to walk into that room and get ready to survive the rest of my day, even if she didn’t know it.
The first bad day was probably that preceding Friday, but I wasn’t completely aware of that fact at the time. I was oblivious, so concerned with keeping my face blank and appearing uninvolved that I didn’t notice how everyone already knew. It’s kind of like stepping out of the road to find there was a car speeding towards you the whole time you strolled across. I didn’t find out about the rumors, the barbed comments and scathing glares, until I got home that night, and even then everything didn’t come out until almost a week later.
I’ll never forget my brother’s talk about people questioning my involvement to him in class, or the teacher that outright asked him what I’d said. It even spread across the street to the Middle School, where my mom taught. She’s never told me everything that happened on her end of the rumor-train, but I know she would lie to my face in order to spare my feelings of guilt if someone did verbally assault her about the whole issue.
All day long, I took note of every black outfit, worn people I’ve gone to school with since before Kindergarten and even respected. I searched out those who also sported other colors, who didn’t curse at ‘whoever’ outed the teacher, and who didn’t look at me before pointedly ignoring me. I wanted some kind of support, even if it wasn’t real, to get me through the day.
The part that hurt the most was that they weren’t strangers, that until that day, I would have had mainly positive and happy things to say about all of them. Until that day, I could overlook the bad things, because until then, they didn’t affect me. When I saw my best friend coming down the hallway towards me, smiling and calling out hi, I saw her black shirt and knew that this was no longer true. I was on the other side now, and it wasn’t the popular one.
They all felt inspired by this big opinion, and honestly, if I’d been unknowing and unaware of all the facts that I had, I’d probably be right alongside them. It was always so easy to slip into the ‘right’ opinion, the one that stuck up for others and protected them from the big bad society. Somewhere in my mind, maybe I’d have wondered about the events that led up to the protest, the movement, the ‘cause’. But it’s always easier to just accept that someone was done wrong, and not think about the things that could have played a part in the outcome, the ones that didn’t paint the picture of an innocent individual with no faults of their own that contributed to their fate.
A part of me got lost in all of that. Among the black clothes and the news articles and the wall of silence every sentence I uttered was met by, I realized that I was completely alone in thinking I had done the right thing. Realistically, I know that I wasn’t, but if anyone else felt the same, they learned from my example what happens to people who speak up. So they stayed silent. They let the people screaming out for justice voice what they thought and held their own in, where they wouldn’t be isolated and attacked.
I didn’t have that option. I don’t think the officials I spoke to ever said a word about who I was, but apparently it was always clear that it was me. In class, I was the only person to say anything contrary to what everyone else was agreeing to. I was the one who questioned a word I didn’t know, before being told that it was a crude insult. Apparently this made it easy to discover who the culprit was after we watched yet another suggestive video in the same class, even after the teacher was warned to dial it back.
Somehow, I was branded as a prude, though no one ever looked me in the eye when they called me that. I had to overhear it in passing, when they thought I couldn’t hear them over my iPod. As if I wouldn’t notice a conversation with my name in it from two feet away.
I don’t think I was ever truly depressed by everything that happened, but I came close. I found out one day, in the middle of that horrid, never-ending week, that from the beginning, my best friend had known. She’d overheard the rumors on that first Friday, but hadn’t said anything to me. Not one word. Instead, her mom casually ask my mom about how I was doing. She wouldn’t even come up to me herself and ask if I was okay, or even if it was true.
This knowledge, this fact, that she knew all along, but let me be alone through it all, that really hurt. Up until then, I had been mostly empty of emotion, trying to wait it all out. But when I discovered she knew from the start that I was under suspicion, maybe even hurting, but was too scared of isolation herself that she did nothing, it drove the emptiness to be filled with pain and sadness.
Up until then, I hadn’t cried, hadn’t let myself be moved to tears by any of it. I cried then, my mom there to see me finally accept that my best friend had abandoned me. She hugged me, and in her face I saw that she would give anything to stop the pain I was feeling, even if she had to take it in herself. This impossible wish is the most any child can ever receive from a parent, and I am truly blessed to have experienced it in my lifetime.
That night was full of firsts for me, as was the next day.
It was the first time I stayed up past two on a school night, unable to sleep because every moment that wasn’t full of distraction dragged me back to the bad thoughts. I kept returning to the past, to other times when she wasn’t there for me, or she hurt me in some way, but I was so afraid of losing her, of being alone, that I didn’t see that I already was.
It was the first time I cried alone over all the bad things that had happened. I lay on my side, covering my mouth but wanting to wake someone up, wanting someone to hug me and tell me they cared about me. I wanted someone, something to balance out all the bad things that would and had happened, but I didn’t know who could.
It was the first time I woke up in the morning, eyes aching with dried tears and the lack of sleep, and I resented my best friend. The only reason I got up and left my parents’ worry behind was to confront her, to ask once and for all what she knew, or thought she knew.
It was my first real fight with my best friend. She came up as cheerful as ever, and I told her we had to talk. I thought she’d at least try to apologize; idiotically, I expected that once she heard that I knew she hadn’t told me about the rumors, she’d feel bad. I’d prepared ways to talk around her sorrys. I didn’t think she’d be outright mad, accusing me of refusing to answer her questions if I was alright, how she was just trying not to hurt my feelings. I’d seen the hurt look on her face before, but never when she’d been looking at me. I hated it even as I knew it was what I needed to see.
It was short, as far as fights go. I think that some part of her was focused on the class she had only a few minutes to get to. Maybe she just didn’t want to confront the problem. Whatever it was, she left first. Before she ran off, she turned back and said something else. I didn’t hear what it was; if I had, I’m sure it would have broken my heart.
I went to class, lasting about two seconds without crying. I texted my parents and my dad instantly called. After sobbing out the whole story to him, he decided he wanted me and our entire family out of that town.
Through all of it, especially after losing my best friend of nine years, I realized that I have been inexpressibly lucky. That may seem like a funny statement, but where my friends and peers failed me, I found constant allies in my family. My grandparents spirited me away to the other side of the state with my brother, the rest of the family only half a day behind us. For five days, they made me smile and laugh, even when all conversations eventually led back to the mess of our hometown, and what it meant for the future. After days trapped in that school with so much hostility constantly aimed at me, it was an enormous relief to be surrounded on all sides by support.
The people who know had told me from the beginning that I was brave. I didn’t think I was, and I still don’t. When I spoke up, I didn’t think the repercussions would be all that major. That’s what I get for underestimating a small town, I guess. I don’t know what I would have done if I had known what was going to happen, all the hurt and realizations that would turn up like stones in a creek as I went. I’d like to think I wouldn’t have done anything differently, but of course, that’s what everyone wants to think about themselves. We all want to think we can be better than we actually are. Everyone at school thought that, when they were fighting for the ‘cause’ to help one teacher. She built herself a wall of support, using people’s feelings that she must be the victim, a teacher being picked on by the Man, and that she hadn’t done anything wrong. They didn’t try to see it from the other point of view.
They’ve called me a lot of things; jerk, prude, and hypocrite among the nicer titles. But none of them stopped to consider the fact that the class itself is about voicing all opinions. I guess mine was the wrong one, though, because the second I did, I was immediately shunted to the side and ridiculed for it.
In the end, the teacher was forgiven. They went through all of the protocols, investigating and meeting and discussing. They sent out a long email listing all of her missteps and crimes. And then they said she’d be back the next day.
All of the other students cheered. They’d won against the bad men. They must be right after all.
If nothing, nothing else, I want this to mean something. I can’t stop the teacher from just repeating what she did; she undoubtedly feels like she can get away with anything now, because this one time people fought to protect her. I don’t think she realizes that hardly any of them really cared about what she did or didn’t do, they just wanted to make a point, however brief. In their need to be a part of something, they used her as a embodiment of a cause, a reason to fight back against something that could be seen as unjust. Some, I’m sure, knew it all, and simply didn’t care that people had been offended, that people ended up hurt and alone because of their actions, and the fact that people like that exist makes it hard to think that this was all worth it.
But there can’t just be two options here, be enraged or stay silent. Are people meant to be too afraid to speak, to say anything that could offend anyone at all? Or are they meant to scream, to shout out opinions at the top of their lungs, regardless of the other side because if they are hurt by it, then they are proof that those screaming must be right. Screams and silence, is that all there is? Do we need a medium, or a new set of solutions altogether?
I don’t know. I can’t preach my views to the world who have different solutions and views that belittle and stomp on my own.
All I know is that I was hurt. I spoke up about something that seemed wrong to me, and hardly anyone wanted to know the facts. The teacher who led to all of this probably doesn’t even think about how this all affected my life, and those of the people who stood by me. Alienation is not something you forget, and no matter how people smile or talk to me as this all fades to the backs of their memories, I will still see black clothes and hear snide remarks when I meet them in the halls. I will never forget the bitterness they made me feel, the things I was forced to confront about myself and them throughout this whole episode.
All I wanted was for it to stop, for the teacher to change and stop making people like me uncomfortable in class. I was never trying to make a statement, but since so many people took that to be my intent, I’ll make one anyway.
Gather the facts. See that both sides of the argument have, at some point, had something happen that led to conflict, not just one of them. Don’t just decide what to believe based on the popular opinion, or you will be just as bad for your determined insolence. If I have learned anything, it’s that if you think you can justify the pain you’ve caused someone else, then you don’t know enough.