When Silence is a Poison — and You are the Mad Scientist

Dawn Bevier

Saying nothing is saying something — and don’t you dare make excuses.

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Today is my first day back at school. My planning period is during lunch — this means cafeteria duty. I drag my unhappy self to the musty, humid arena that hundred of students sit down to eat at every day. I have no idea that my next article is waiting for me. My next epiphany. One that will make me a better person.

I had heard that a magazine was paying writers to write about a time when they should have said something, but didn’t. The answer comes knocking at my heart within two minutes of being in that social smorgasbord where adolescents eat and talk freely for thirty minutes out of the school day.

It starts with him. The boy at the table closest to the food line.

I say him because I don’t know his name.

He is gangly, the way teenage boys are when puberty has not made yet acquaintance with them. He is Asian in feature, with black eyes deep in thought. He sits and eats alone. Completely alone. His plastic cup of peaches is smashed to the side of his styrofoam plate, and he looks into his chocolate milk like there is a ten carat diamond floating somewhere inside of the plastic box.

I know at this moment that his intention is to look involved-busy-while hundreds of his classmates laugh and chat merrily with their friends. To look unphased by the fact that he is alone, painfully, obviously alone.

As I watch him, I know that it isn’t just the pain of being alone, but the stigma that comes from everyone seeing him alone.

I mean even the nerdiest nerds, even the weirdest rainbow-haired, eyeliner-wearing boys have comrades with which to share this thirty-minute reprieve from stern-eyed teachers and mind-boggling Honors Statistics word problems.

I know he is asking himself what others say about him, about the fact that he is still obviously singular in such a pluralistic society?

I feel his pain. And it breaks my heart.

And then I know what I wished I had said. All those times I was quiet.

I know then, at this moment, that my silence in the past was more than just insensitive. It was toxic.

Destructive.

Like a Titantic survivor that floats by a drowning man when he has a life-boat with extra space.

To all of my solitary classmates sitting, staring mesmerizingly into their chocolate milk, I should have said, “Hey, why don’t you come sit with us?”

To all the kids who were teased for wearing thrift store clothes, I should have said, “I love that shirt. It’ s so boho chic. I dig retro looks.”

To all the kids who came out of the closet and suffered snickers and whispered ridicule, spoken just loudly enough to be heard by the masses but not the teacher, I should have said, “Ignore them. They don’t have the confidence to be who they really are.”

To all the pregnant girls who carried big bellies to gym class, who had to endure mockery and ogling when they changed into their phys ed uniform, I should have said, “When are you due? Boy or girl? You must be so excited.”

What did I do then? Thirty years ago?

Nothing.

I try at first to rationalize. To defend my behavior.

Hey, I say to myself, I didn’t participate in the bashing. The stares. The giggles.

But then I realize the ugly truth.

Doing nothing was doing something.

It was allowing a person to suffer, to hurt, to flounder, while I sat there complacent and static.

It was the same thing that people did when they saw people burned at the stake for differing belief systems.

It was the same thing that people did when they saw slaves used and abused simply for the color of their skin.

It was the same thing that people did when they watched the Nazis cart away Jews.

I wish I could go back and change things.

But I can’t. Such is the burden of time. It cannot be erased.

But I sure as heck can stop my cycle of cowardice.

I can speak out. And I do.

Five minutes until lunch duty is over.

I walk up to him. Offer to throw away his trash. Ask him how his first day back was. And tell him I love his bright red Vans.

He smiles.

I smile.

I can change this cruel world. One word at a time.

And this time, I will speak.

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Sanford, NC
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