The rattling yellow bus that carted us to and from middle school could be a dangerous place. This became painfully clear one afternoon in the seventh grade, when a brief, violent interaction forever shifted my worldview.
In those days, I often rode alongside two friends who lived a few doors down in our low-rent apartment complex in Jacksonville, Florida. They were identical twins, blond and blue-eyed, and looked so alike they were constantly confused by classmates and teachers. Because I’d grown up with them, I could easily identify each by the constellations of freckles that dotted their noses.
We spent these rides chatting about all of the things that occupy the minds of 12-year-old girls. But one day, we weren’t free to talk in peace.
An infamously mean girl in our class had locked her attention on the twins. In my memory, she looms large — twice my height and triple my width, like a hulking oak with massive limbs.
From a nearby seat, she taunted the twins. She spewed so much foul language it soured her breath. They pretended not to notice.
When the bus rolled into the stop outside our neighbourhood, where the bully also lived, the verbal abuse escalated. She threatened to hurt them if they didn’t respond. I could see them shaking, scared and weak, unsure of what brought this on or how to handle it. We were surrounded by a group of kids as the bus skidded away.
I hadn’t opened my mouth until then, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I wouldn’t stand there and watch while she insulted my friends.
“Leave them alone,” I said. “They haven’t done anything to you.”
Suddenly it was if she saw me for the first time. Her eyes flashed white, and her body tightened. She’d found a new target.
“Don’t tell me what to do, you little b—-,” she shot back.
I had no intention of getting in a fight. She’d win, and we both knew it. I turned on my heels, offering her my back, and headed towards my apartment at the far end of the block.
Seething, my tormentor followed, the full force of her wrath now directed at me. She began jabbing me in the back with her finger as I walked. “Turn around,” she dared with every painful stab. “Why don’t you just turn around?”
My heart pounded in my throat, growing so loud it almost drowned her out. The twins did nothing, staring in silent awe.
The prodding intensified. She thrust more and more weight behind that finger, attacking me like a deranged woodpecker. Maybe if I looked at her she’d stop. Maybe I could talk my way out of this. I paused.
I turned to say something, anything, to call her off, and saw only a blur of motion as her fist smashed into my face. I barely had time to register the explosion of nerve endings in my cheek before she grabbed me by the hair and rammed my body into the pavement. As she jerked me around by the roots of my hair, I thrashed at her thick legs. I could hear other kids cheering in the distance.
Finally, I got a grip on one of her ankles and yanked it upward with all my strength, causing her to topple to the ground.
While I lay on the sidewalk, breathless and crumpled, she abruptly stood and turned away, as if she’d lost interest. The twins rushed to my side, asking if I was OK. “Go home,” I snapped, hoisting myself up and limping the short distance home.
And just like that, it was over.
I never rode that bus again, and it wasn’t long before we moved out of the neighbourhood. The twins and I remained friends, but I never looked at them in quite the same way. I’d stood up for them, but, ultimately, I’d stood alone. At some point in that five-minute blur, they’d lost my respect.
That was the last time I ever spoke to the bully. I saw her in the halls sometimes, and our eyes met. I thought I would see something in them — some measure of rage, regret, recognition even — but they were vacant.
I learned something about myself that day. I learned that I was the kind of person who’d speak up, who’d turn around and look my opponent in the eye. Despite some bruises and hurt pride, I was stronger.
Years later, when I fought battles in the workplace — usually for myself, sometimes for those who worked for me or the subjects we covered — I went through the same mental calculation. Is it worth the hits that I know will come? Am I tough enough to face them?
In a strange way, a schoolyard intimidator taught me the most important lesson you can learn about courage. She taught me that I had it.
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