In my Grade 5 classroom in 1995, I was busily swooning over Justin Williams during a rainy day. He was a classmate who oozed cool and I had a burning crush on him. He looked like Jonathan Brandis from SeaQuest. He brought in a guitar and was allowed to strum along some Nirvana songs for us, because it’d been one year since Kurt Cobain died. I didn’t know who Kurt Cobain was at the time as I was only in Grade 5. Justin had older siblings. He could have told me to do anything and I would have happily obliged. The feelings were anything but mutual, he thought I was weird.
Everyone was mean to the biggest girl in the class. It made me uncomfortable. Taunt after taunt everyone was being a dick. The teacher took the “kids will be kids” approach, in that she did nothing. A boy sitting in the desk next to the girl pushed her eraser off the front of her desk with his ruler, and she had to walk in front of everyone to get it. When she bent down to pick it up he made a fart noise. She was mortified. I saw it getting to her. She was weird, too.
They kept being dicks to her and I kept getting more and more uncomfortable, but I felt alone. I kept telling myself I should say something but every time I went to I wasn’t brave enough. After yet another taunt and the raucous laughter that ensued, I saw someone else wasn’t laughing. A boy across the room and I made eye contact. I recognised the discomfort on his face. We still didn’t say anything.
In primary school I mostly enjoyed lunch alone. My parents owned a milk bar and I had great lunchboxes accordingly. When it was lunch time there was a mad rush to see what I had. I felt popular and special. After some truly pro bargaining, I’d swap my yearned-for bag of Burger Rings for whatever took my fancy out of someone else’s lunch (a straz and sauce sandwich was a good day) and then everyone would disperse. No one hung around. After the surge, the boy came over to me and said people were kinda mean to the big girl and I agreed. People shouldn’t be saying those things. I swapped my lunch goodies for an apple that day.
The next taunt in class, we looked at each other. I waited for him to speak. He didn’t. I didn’t. Then a girl behind me did, out of nowhere. We were shocked but relieved.
“Shut up, you guys.”
Crosshairs were now on her. They started applying the same tactics on her as they had the previous girl, but with added harshness, because she dared to challenge them.
The boy and I stood up for her. Soon some more joined in.
I was so scared to defend her by myself. I was already a weird kid. I just wanted Justin to like me. But once others started standing up against shitty behaviour, I had much more confidence. I got mouthy. I put the mean kids on a lunch negotiation embargo. You bitches ain’t getting MY Burger Rings! I started having less tolerance for their crap, and less fear about letting it be known. I became even more radioactive than I was before, but I was oddly at peace with it.
This week has felt a lot like that day. It’s easier to be brave against shitty behaviour when people stand with you and you realise just how many others are fed up with it too. #1ReasonWhy has given many the confidence to say “Nah you know what? That’s kinda shit. No Burger Rings for you.” Now all we need is the
teachers media gatekeepers to slam down this kind of behaviour when they see it. The time has come to an end where it’s more valued when people dismiss other’s concerns than it is important to have a safe space for people to talk. Someone who doesn’t want to engage in conversation saying “not this shit again” is NOT more important than the person who has wanted to speak up about something that has really been hurting them for quite some time finally finding the bravery and the space in which to do it.
I’ve never felt more like there were enough of us to get shit done than I have this week, and it was made beautifully clear to me in this touching poem by Cara Ellison.