I knew this girl in middle school. I’ll call her Sam, but that isn’t her real name. Actually, to say I knew her is an overstatement. I knew of her. I shared classes with her. We walked the same halls, had the same classmates, took notes from the same teachers, navigated the same hell of middle school weird years–but I didn’t really know her. What I did know of this girl, is that it was safest to steer clear of her. I knew to keep my head down and veer to the other side of the hallway when I was in her path. I knew to give her space, don’t make waves, stay out of her way.
She was beautiful, this girl. Her long, straight blond locks hung halfway down her back and never was there a hair out of place. Her makeup was applied perfectly (quite a feat for an 8th grade girl before the birth of YouTube) and she was always impeccably dressed. She walked with her head tall and her eyes straight ahead. She was cool in the black-leather-jacket-cigarette-in-the-hand-chip-on-the-shoulder-Danny-Zuko-from-Greece way. If I stayed out of her way, I knew I would be fine. One wrong move, though? She could throw a punch that would have surprised Mike Tyson on his best day.
I did what I did best. I stayed out of her way.
There was this teacher in middle school. Mr. H, we called him. He was large and sweaty and loud. He breathed heavy and smelled as if he smoked a pack of Camel’s between each class period.
I was warned about him. Warned about how his anger ignited at the slightest indisgression–a sly look, speaking out of turn. Warned about the seeming permanent yellow stains that lived under the arms of the white short sleeve dress shirts he wore each day. Warned about the beads of sweat that made a home on his wrinkled brow and along his gray, thinning hairline.
Keep your eyes down and do your work, I was cautioned by a few of his previous students–the freshman and sophomores who had already walked the Mr H road. You’ll be fine if you turn in your work and stay out of his way.
So that’s what I did. I did my work and I stayed out of his way.
An incident happened in the middle of my eighth grade year, in the middle of Mr. H’s class. I was sitting in the second seat of the row at the far side of the classroom, across the room from the door, directly next to the windows. Tyrone sat in the seat behind me, Mark was behind Tyrone. Mr. H stood as he always did, in front of the class–white shirt, yellow stains, sweaty brow, husky, smokers voice. My head was down, focused, listening, as was the way in his class and everything seemed normal–until it wasn’t. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a volcano erupted in the middle of the classroom.
To this day, I can’t remember what led to the disruption that day. Was Mr. H having a particularly bad day? Did ‘Sam’ provoke him? I have zero recollection of the details. What I do remember, though, is the yelling. The screaming. The angry red faces. I remember peeking out of the corner of my eye and seeing ‘Sam’ standing toe-to-toe, nose-to, nose with Mr. H.
She was fearless as I always knew she was. He was loud, like I had heard he was. Suddenly, their voices rose to levels that should never be heard inside a school building. I wondered if the windows next to me would blow. My heart pounded inside my chest as I watched, with a side-glance, as the two stood face to face yelling about things I can’t remember today. What I do remember, though, is how the loud voice of Mr. H made me tremble with fear. How the defiant anger of ‘Sam’ matched his like a mirror. I was shaking on the inside (and probably the outside, too) as Mr. H marched ‘Sam’ out of the room, both of them red-faced and screaming the entire way.
When she left the room, I wasn’t sure I’d ever see her again.
When he left the room, I’d hoped he wouldn’t return that day.
Such anger, such rage, was something I had never witnessed before. I hoped I’d never witness it again.
The incident between ‘Sam’ and Mr. H happened nearly thirty years ago and still, from time to time, I find my mind lingering on it. Mr. H in ‘Sam’s’ face, the loud baritone voice booming through the room, ‘Sam’s’ long blonde hair swinging as she was escorted out of the room.
As an adult, I think about ‘Sam’ now and wonder what was going on in her world. I wonder why she was so angry. I wonder what hardened her so.
My 13 year old self had no idea how to communicate with a girl who was so different than me. The path of least resistance is the one I chose every day of the week.
As an adult, though, I think about the beautiful girl with the chip on her shoulder and I realize those shoulders must have also carried the entire world. I wonder, did she have a safe place to fall? Did she feel safe. Did she feel loved? Did she feel protected?
As an adult, I wonder what might have happened if I would have looked her in the eye and smiled. If I would have asked, did you do anything fun this weekend? If I would have taken a simple risk and said out loud, I really like your hair today.
Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. But maybe it could have?
Junior high was hard and confusing and isolating. Would a kind word or a simple gesture help?
Certainly, it couldn’t hurt.
Nearly thirty years later, I wonder if things are really that different. Sure, the ages and faces have changed, the the environment has changed, but often, I’m reminded of those eighth grade feelings.
The world is hard and confusing and isolating. Would a kind word or a simple gesture help?
Certainly, it couldn’t hurt.
I guess what I’ve been thinking about lately is that it would be nice to change the world. It would be nice to move mountains and trample boundaries and impact the world is ways that are greater than my imagination. Yes, that would be nice.
And then I think about ‘Sam’. And I think about the world on her shoulders. And I wonder what could have been, what might have been with one tiny gesture, or one simple word.
Maybe ‘the world’ will take care of itself? Maybe, perhaps, there are people right in front of me or right in front of you who need a kind word or a simple gesture. And maybe that is how it happens? Maybe that’s how the world changes.
The tired-looking woman at the post office.
The busy barista who hands me my coffee.
The overworked cashier at the grocery store.
The child who gives me attitude about chores.
The person looking back at me in the mirror.
One person, one gesture–a changed world–one person at a time.
Certainly, it couldn’t hurt.