The kids sometimes ask me to tell them stories about when I was little. You may believe, with a sentimental and indulging smile, that this is because they want to learn more about how I grew up, how I became the sweet, lovable creature that they know today, but that’s not the case: they particularly like stories about stupid things I did, and unfortunately, I have plenty of material in that department.
They like to hear one story so much that I think they could recite it from memory. It is one of the few examples of a non-stupid thing I did.
When I was in high school, I was eating lunch in the cafeteria when I noticed that students around me kept turning to look at something, nudging and pointing and whispering. I seemed like the last one to notice what was going on.
When I turned around, I saw a red-haired girl with glasses sitting at a table by herself, crying. Hard. The table beside her was full of boys, mostly members of the football team, popular and well-liked. They were calling insults over to her, laughing at their own ingenious hilarity, encouraging each other: making fun of her hair, her appearance, her clothes, anything they could riddle with their cheap shots and cause injury.
It had already worked. She was already crying. She wasn’t even trying to hide it.
Everyone saw this happening, but no one made a move. Even the teachers in the cafeteria had amassed in the opposite corner of the room with deliberately glazed-over, look-in-the-opposite-direction, “I don’t see what’s happening” expressions.
Okay. If no one else was going to do anything, that only left me.
I stood up and walked over to the boys’ table. They barely noticed me until I said loudly, “Stop it.”
It was like a cheesy, overly-dramatic Western movie. We may as well have been standing in the center of the street at high noon, squinting at each other with our trigger fingers hovered expectantly over our holsters. Everyone in the cafeteria got quiet at the same time so they wouldn’t miss a thing.
One of the boys stood up, towering over me, since height is not something I was ever blessed with, even back then. I don’t remember the specifics of the exchange that happened. I’m sure it wasn’t Shakespearean prose or much more than angry threats. I know he told me to go away in a dismissing, condescending tone, as if swatting away a meaningless gnat, and I know I stayed right where I was. Did this clown really think someone with three brothers was going to be so easily intimidated?
Long story short, I was sent to the principal’s office. Yes, me. Not the table full of cowardly bullies ganging up on one lonely girl sitting by herself, but me, the one who told them to stop. I would do it again in a heartbeat, because it was the right thing to do.
The red-haired girl was transferred to another school after that. I forgot about her.
Years later, after I graduated, I worked at a restaurant during college with a guy I got to be good friends with. So good, in fact, that when he fell in love with the girl of his dreams, he was excited for me to meet his girlfriend.
I thought she looked familiar as soon as I saw her, but I thought, nah. This red-haired young lady is not the same girl sobbing in the cafeteria that day. What are the odds this is her? I tossed it aside as impossible.
The next day at work, my buddy came up to me and looked ready to cry. He told me that his girlfriend had told him what I had done for her. I couldn’t believe it was the same girl. I couldn’t believe she remembered me.
What meant the most to me, though, was when he said his girlfriend told him I was the only person who had ever done something like that for her. She said she would never forget it.
What do you say to something like that? I am not an overly emotional person, but I admit I felt a bit choked up. I had never even thought about what she thought of the odd, dark-haired girl who walked across the cafeteria that day to tell those boys to shut up. Apparently it meant much more than I ever imagined.
The kids have never said why they like to hear that story. Part of it, I am sure, is the fact that I ended up in the principal’s office. I like to think that at least part of it, though, is that they like the idea of someone stepping out from the crowd and doing more than just watching and doing nothing. I hope they learn to stand up even if they are the only one and just do what is right.