Have you ever spoken up when you saw something going on that was wrong? Were you scared? What ended up happening?
It isn’t the times that I’ve spoken up that I remember. It’s the times that I kept quiet.
Going to a public school in Idaho is a little like joining a school football team because your parents want you to. You’re stuck with a bunch of hyper-aggressive adolescents that are every bit as terrified as you are, and eager to prove otherwise.
Insecurity festers into cruelty. The girls trade barbed words and best friends every week. The guys make a game of hurting one another and pretending that they can’t be hurt. Everyone thrashes about, and the teachers lord over their petty kingdom by dispensing boons and curses on the unwashed masses.
Then there are the darker undercurrents. The drugs, booze, and cigarettes that promised to make you an adult in the eyes of your peers. The teenaged pregnancies that came with the “almost-but-not-quite” abstinence only education. The self-harm that no teacher dared to report on. The suicides that the school administration regretfully mourned in an assembly.
It isn’t easy being twelve.
We love to pretend that children are just children. They look like children. They act like children at home, for the most part. But just outside your view is a hell they trek through every day. You wonder why those teens make such stupid choices. You try to imagine what could compel you to do something similar, and you can’t, because you aren’t twelve anymore. You’ve forgotten what it feels like to suffer without any measuring sticks, to be miserable without any experiences to contrast what misery feels like.
You’ve forgotten what it is to be The Snitch. You spoke up once, and everyone hated you for it. The students for breaking their unspoken rule, the teachers for forcing them to deal with it, and the parents for shattering their illusions on what children are really like. It wasn’t like the TV shows and stories where the kid who speaks up is thanked for his courage. You were punished for it. A pariah that students and teachers alike were disgusted with.
So then you kept silent, and you watched god awful things happen. You saw those fistfights at the bus stop. You watched the gay kid’s scars multiply in nice orderly lines. You saw the world as a broken kaleidoscope of shitty circumstances.
Then you turned fourteen. Luck intervened and you found yourself in a better school, with better students and better teachers. You found yourself being better person. You remembered your voice, and you pieced that broken courage back together. People thanked you now when you used your words, although maybe it was because you used your words more wisely.
You had learned that the difference between a goody-two-shoes and a well-intentioned-student is finer than silk. They respected that knowledge. They respected you. And for the first time in a long time, the world started to seem like a fundamentally good place…
Then high school and college happened, and you’re still trying to wrap your head around that.