I was seated one seat diagonally behind Jonathan that day. I remember it as if it was yesterday. It was a Monday. Nineteen years ago.
He reached into his backpack and then pulled his hand out, his fist clenched around something.
Now there was something silver protruding from the fist. He turned around and held it up. We made eye contact.
“I forgot I had this in my backpack,” he said without prompting, “I went camping this weekend.”
He turned back around and I went back to my in-class assignment. It was rare that Jonathan seemed to notice—let alone speak to—me when I wasn’t with one of my best friends, the girl he had a crush on.
Later that week, I was called into the principal’s office. I had been there a number of times previously, usually to help with admin work and once to bond with my principal about our matching Halloween costumes (we were both Dorothy that year).
I skipped in, but my gait became far less chipper at the sight of my principal’s face.
“Take a seat,” she said, “We’ve got something very serious to discuss.”
We weren’t in Kansas anymore.
“Jonathan and James have been suspended,” she stopped. I was confused. Not because they had been suspended (they had a knack for getting themselves into trouble). But because she was informing me. Why? If we were gossiping the least she could have done was offered me some tea.
“Do you know why?” She asked after a long pause.
“Are you sure? Jonathan showed you something this week.”
“Oh, the pocket knife?” I asked, still trying to piece together my presence in that room.
“As you know, we have a zero-tolerance policy with weapons. Why didn’t you tell anyone he had it at school?”
“He told me he accidentally left it in his backpack. He went camping last weekend.” I honestly didn’t think twice about the pocket knife, but even if I had, I still wouldn’t have told anyone. I had been let in to Jonathan’s circle, and he was one of the popular kids. I couldn’t gamble this high honor away.
“Zero-tolerance means it doesn’t matter why. What if he injured someone or himself? How would you have felt? You could have helped prevent that. The fact that you knew and didn’t tell anyone means I could suspend you too.” My eyes welled with tears. I wished Jonathan had never spoken to me in the first place. I wondered how my name had come up to our principal. “I’m not going to, but today I hope you learn a very important lesson: When you see something, and you don’t say something, you too are guilty.”
That day, I learned what it means to be a not-so-incident bystander.
Eight years later, in my AP Psychology class, I learned the story of Kitty Genovese, a twenty-eight-year old woman who was murdered to death outside her New York apartment in the 1960’s. Just under forty people witnessed the event without calling for help. This apathy was later coined the bystander effect. People are less likely to help someone in need when there are others present. To give people the benefit of the doubt, everyone thinks or hopes that someone else will help.
This is humankind’s most depraved quality.
Recently, I was inspired by two women who broke away from the bystanders. One, a friend of my mom, and the other, a mentor of a colleague. Both could have safely remained silent. But they took action by stepping away from their respective groups to bring positive change. In doing so, they did not care what others would say or think; they did not take or push blame; they did not ignore all the intricacies of the situation; they didn’t try to protect themselves or anyone else; they did not seek martyrdom. Instead, they spotted the metaphorical pocket knife, sensed its potential for harm, and did what they believed was right. My involvement was to witness the end result: My mom’s faith and friendship restored, my colleague’s renewed feelings of respect, support, and appreciation. In stepping up, my mom’s friend and the mentor broke silence. Silence that, as I learned in my principal’s cramped office so long ago, can sometimes be more damaging than an illicit act itself.
Unlike my fourth grade self, I no longer consider what it means to be well-liked by a group. These recent displays by strong women have reminded me of the power not in being popular, but in following our inner compass even when it detracts from the majority. Their acts demonstrated what it truly means to gain and maintain trust. To build strong relationships. To be true to others—and to yourself.
Each of us is equipped with an inner truth. This is our most powerful weapon. Use it to cut away the brush and forge the path that you believe in.