This is the third in a series of three stories confronting intolerance to commemorate September 11. Read "My Voice" by Holly:
It was a chilly October morning. The once beautiful scarlet leaves that had danced so freely through the air now littered the frosted ground among the usual abundance of candy wrappers and soda cans. I kicked the leaves with the toe of my sneaker, freeing the debris from the asphalt as I passed the two barren trees that towered above the gates of Grant Union High School.
It could have just been the ordinary autumn school day. I could have just passed through those familiar double doors and walked down the polished, linoleum hallways to my first class to be taught something that I would soon forget. But I would learn something much more important that day.
My backpack was almost brushing the siding of the building as I made my way towards the entrance when I saw it. A large number of boys and girls, almost half of my grade, were forming a circle beside the parking lot, as if instructed to do so. Standing tall, shoulder to shoulder, my peers left a dark ring of shadow tattooed against the pavement. Curious, I turned away from my destination, and made my way towards the parking lot to join my peers.
As I came closer and closer to the ring of teenagers, I could sense that there was something wrong. It was similar to that moment before a vicious thunderstorm; that moment of sickening tension before the first flash of angry lightening. The laughs and jeers of the crowd filled my ears with a ringing. I pushed through the jumble of arms, legs, and backpacks, towards the front, craning my neck so that I could see the twisted scene in front of me.
There you stood, surrounded, trapped in the middle of the ring, like a sheep in a corral. You stood there, weak, vulnerable, your eyes glued to your feet, determined not to look up. You stood there with hunched shoulders, longing to shrink and hide in the folds of your baggy clothes. Your face was in shadow as you looked down, cowering in the shadow of the heckling mob.
One voice stuck out from the laughs and cheers. It was the loud, confident voice of Tobi Rick . Tobi’s tall, muscular frame stood a foot out from the circle, facing your drooping head. Thriving in the attention of the crowd, he began shouting at you, clearly and deliberately, growing more and more aggressive with the heightening approval of his admiring peers.
His words were sharp and clear even over the excited buzz of the group. They were strong, full of hatred and disapproval. They cut at you like white hot knives, stinging, wounding. But you stood strong, your head held firmly down, your knees held stiff. You were determined not to meet his eyes. You would not give in.
The words criticized everything about you. Your appearance, the way you talked, your beliefs. They punished you for being different, for not being like Tobi Rick and his friends. For not dressing like the popular boys. For going against the grain. Finally, Tobi’s brown hair and tall figure melted into the rest of the ferocious crowd after what seemed like hours of tormenting you. I stood there frozen, even as the jeering crowd began to leave. There duty was done. They had injured you. They had scarred every inch of your body with their resentful words.
It was only after they had left that you broke. Your mouth that you had so forcefully held into a grimace fell. Your knees sank to the ground. Your hid your face in your palms. You were weak. You were hurt. You were alone.
I could not erase that haunting image of your broken body on the asphalt from my mind even after I had left the scene. I could not forget how united they had all stood against you. I hurt for you. I was ashamed that I had walked away from you, leaving you helpless, as alone as ever. I had left you when you had needed somebody at your side.
I did not even know you well. You were not popular. Until that day, you were just another face in the blur of growing up.
But I’m sorry that I didn’t use my voice that day. I’m sorry that I could not find my confidence. Tobi was the confident one. He could use his voice and I couldn’t. And he used it to hurt you. I am ashamed that I could not find mine to fight for you; that I did not have the courage to fight for the right to be yourself.
And as I grow older, I know that I will encounter this situation again. I know that you will not be the only one who is stuck in that circle. I know that you are not that only one that will be taunted for having the courage to be yourself, for it happens everyday. One day, it may be one of my closest friends. One day, it may even be me.
You probably don't even know my name, but you have taught me something very important. I learned that I should not be ashamed of who I am. You stood strong in that circle and did not let them see you break.
And for you and every other individual who has the courage to be different, I promise that I will not let you stand alone. I promise that next time I will stand by your side in that circle. And most of all, I promise you that next time I will find my voice.
Pay tribute to September 11 and promote tolerance by taking action below.