Speaking up isn't easy. It takes courage...
I hit the Unfriend button the other day on Facebook. The woman won't miss me. I'm pretty sure she is mostly unaware of my existence, except when I disagree with her publicly on Facebook, which I do only infrequently.
I've known her forever, and yet barely know her, if that makes any sense. When she sent me a friend request, I accepted, wondering even as I did why I would even want to be friends with someone like her.
Let me give you some context.
We went to high school together. First at different campuses, and later, when most of the other campuses had shut down, we attended the same San Francisco campus of ILS (Independent Learning School). I did not like her. I had nothing in common with her. She was not a nice person then, and sincerely doubt she is now.
My first experience meeting her was on a school ski trip to Squaw Valley at the age of 15. My school principal had approached me and asked me to look out for a girl we will simply refer to as R. R was awkward, introverted, horribly self-conscious, and socially inept. Even worse than I was, and that's saying a lot. But it isn't R who is the central character of the story here. It was JH.
Even now, even after all of her bad behavior, I don't feel it is necessary to publicly out her by her full name. JH was a Marin girl. You'd have to know some of them to understand what I mean. Rich, well-dressed, wanted for nothing, except maybe a soul.
I wish I was kidding. But I'm not.
It was the second day of the trip when, at breakfast, I simply couldn't take it anymore. For 24 hours, I had listened to her tear into R in the most vicious, most ruthless possible way. Any time R showed her face, here was JH, come to make the girl's life a living hell.
In a time long before LGBTQIA+ was appreciated, celebrated, or even really acknowledged in teens, here was JH calling R a lesbian, calling her RUDE-dan, a twist on the girl's name, claiming she masturbated against a door in public, that she smelled, that she was ugly, that her hair was wrong, that her clothes were laughable, that she dressed like a man (oh, the horrors), and so much more. It was just constant, ferocious, unending, and fucking brutal.
I couldn't listen to it. It made me sick. Now R wasn't my cup of tea. She was a little bit clingy, not interested in doing anything that required renting a snowsuit or skis or basically going outdoors except to eat at the cafeteria. I had a few friends and while I was awkward and ridiculously shy and kept to myself, she made me feel like a rock star in comparison. I couldn't help wondering why she had wanted to go on a ski trip if she didn't even want to go outside in the snow. I felt bad for her, though, when I saw what she had to endure. Really bad. Sick to my stomach, bad. And after a day of it, I spoke up.
You didn't know me then, so let me explain how big a deal this was for me. I could barely find words when it came to the popular kids. Making eye contact was impossible. Words were stilted and filled with "um" and "uh" and I knew the pattern of the carpet under my feet far better than I knew their faces. The thought of even speaking to this pretty, well-dressed, sharp-tongued Marin girl had me in a cold sweat of fear. What if she turned on me? What if she fixed her sights on taking me down? Would everyone else join her? Laugh? Help her make up more insults? But sitting there and listening to her go on and on, it was... untenable.
"How can you talk about her like that?" I finally asked. R just sat there, silent, eyes downcast, barely eating her food.
"What?" JH responded, looking confused. I had caught her in mid-spiel. Until I spoke up, I doubt she had even noticed I was there. Even if I was sitting right across the long table from her.
"How can you say those things when she is sitting right here?" I persisted. JH's words had been brutal and yet also like the worst kind of gossip and nastiness you can imagine. You see it in movies, that slithering hate, where the popular girls talk about "those other girls" in ways that follow their victims into every corner of high school life. At least in the movies, a good deal of it is conducted in whispers and behind someone's back, not blatantly and relentlessly in their face.
JH blinked at me. "Why not? She doesn't care. Besides, it's all true." And then she laughed.
I don't remember what I said next. I don't know that I said anything. I have searched my memories, time and again, trying to remember if I stood up for R, if I told JH that what she was saying was unkind and cruel, but honestly, I don't remember. I was terrified of JH and the rest of her ilk. Frightened her callous brutality would suddenly zero in on me. My hair was frizzy, my boobs were nonexistent, I had braces and acne, and when cornered I could barely string a sentence together. I was no social justice warrior.
After that ski trip, I never saw R again. I have no idea what happened to her or if she ever fought back, complained, or simply had to continue to endure the torture until school ended or JH tired of her. I have wondered so many times over the years if she is okay, if she survived the scars of high school, if she pushed past it, or if the damage is with her still.
I wish I had done more. I wish I had said more. I wish I had gone to someone in power and pushed to get that rich bitch sent back home for bad behavior.
Even if I had caused a scene, in the mid-80s, bullying wasn't something you could necessarily get protection from. I had been bullied for years and no one had done a single thing about it. It wasn't something that was taught past the prominent displays of The Golden Rule in elementary school. Still, My Bodyguard and other movies weren't that far off in how bad it could get. And even in our tiny, private school, it happened.
Recently, JH posted a meme that showed a cancer patient and said, "If student loans can be forgiven, we should forgive medical debt too. At least cancer survivors didn't ask for cancer."
I am not the scared young girl I once was. I thought her meme was dumber than horse shit, to be perfectly honest. Yet I managed to hold my tongue and instead wrote: "Medical debt can be forgiven through bankruptcy, unlike student loans, which only go away when you die, kind of like a terminal illness."
I took a moment to look back on her posts. Did she give a shit about another living soul past her well-off family? Maybe even cancer victims? Not that I could see.
I hit Unfriend. Because, honestly? Life is way too short for mediocre, cruel girls who have grown up to be replicas of their teenage selves. Who care for no one other than themselves.
R... if you are out there, I'm sorry I didn't do more. You didn't deserve that. Not at all.