I was in the sixth grade when a new girl came to our class. She was even more quiet and shy than I was at the time. Even though we wore uniforms to school she somehow looked different in them. Her shoes looked clunky and were mismatched with the loafers and saddle oxfords that the rest of us wore. Her hair was wild and frazzled looking. She mostly kept to herself, standing in the shadow of the building during recess when we were all giddily chatting with one another. She kept her head down and averted her glance when we passed by her. Somehow none of us ever thought to invite her into one of our many circles of friends. All of our alliances had already been established and she seemed unlikely to fit into any of them. We would see her but not see her.
I walked to and from school in those days. I’d take a route down a sidewalk on one of the main streets of the isolated and quiet neighborhood where I lived passing the homes of many of my classmates along the way. I began to notice the girl walking just ahead of me day after day. Her pace was purposeful as though she was in a hurry to get home but I too walked quickly back then so I was usually just a few steps away from catching up with her. On a whim borne more out of curiosity than kindness I one afternoon decided to quicken my steps and introduce myself. That’s when I learned that her name was Evelyn and that she and her family were renting a home only one street over from mine. Thus began our routine of accompanying each other on the long walk home.
Evelyn never told me much about her herself or her family circumstances and I decided not to ask since she seemed uncomfortable talking about that subject. Instead we spoke of school and laughed about things that had happened during our time there. We both adored our teacher Mrs. Loisey and had crushes on some of the boys in the class. Once Evelyn became relaxed with me she shared a radiant smile that made her seemingly plain face stunningly beautiful. She was funny too and exceedingly kind. I found myself looking forward to our afternoon chats and liked her more and more with each passing day but once I reached my street that was the end of our time together. She politely turned down my suggestions that we get together in our homes which might have baffled me if I had been older and more observant but did not bother me much back then.
At school Evelyn was still an outsider. I asked her to join me with my friends but she mostly stood on the edges of our recess time gatherings. For the most part she remained an enigma to most of my classmates who never saw her joy or heard her laughter. In time she became the victim of bullying, often by the very boys that the two of us had most admired. It was painful to watch them making jokes about her that were just audible enough to spread through the classroom like a rumor but not noticeable enough to disrupt the orderly flow of learning. It was only when the torture that she was enduring reached a crescendo of cruelty and humiliation that she lost it one day and struck back at one of her offenders loudly enough that the entire class halted in stunned silence.
I have always remembered how deftly Mrs. Loisey handled the situation, saving face for Evelyn while humbling the boys with stern reminders of how unmanly their behavior had been. All the while she somehow managed to accomplish the blow to the boys’ egos with humor that left most of us laughing but understanding how wrong and silly the campaign of terror had been.
Nobody bothered Evelyn after that and we never spoke of it in our daily sojourns together. She seemed to become more and more relaxed at school and even ventured into other friendships during our recess time. Somehow we all began to accept her quirkiness and as she felt better and better about herself she slowly became one of us and then just as suddenly as she had come into our world she was gone.
I missed her on my journey home each day. I had come to depend on her company and the corny jokes that she told. I wondered where she had gone and how she was doing because she had not even shared that she was about to depart. Maybe she did not even know that she would be leaving imminently. I hoped that it was not going to once again be difficult for her to adjust to a new home and a new school. I worried that she might be bullied again and that her teacher might not be as wonderful as Mrs. Lousy in handling the situation.
When I became a teacher I found myself noticing the “Evelyns” in my classroom. There often seemed to be some poor soul who did not fit in well with the strict social standards of teenagers. They would struggle to be comfortable and more often than not become the butt of jokes and harassment. I made it my duty to watch over them and help them navigate through the ugliness that young people sometimes dish out because of their own immaturity and insecurities. I did my best to be a Mrs. Loisey for them.
Bullying seems to only have become worse with the advances of technology and social media. The torture inflicted on victims is sometimes not apparent at school. Instead it is more likely to be happening online after hours for all the world to see. The audience can grow to thousands of strangers who giddily join into the terrorizing of some innocent soul. It is much more difficult to see or combat than in the past and much of it is done with an anonymity that allows the bully to be even more ferocious that he/she might have been in a face to face encounter. The old saw of just ignoring it does not work as well when the pain and insults feel like threats or when so much of society even among adults has joined into the ugliness with the stroke of a few keys on a phone or computer. It’s something that has grown like a disease.
Celebrities and First Ladies have mounted campaigns to confront bullying and schools have even provided instruction to students about its horrific effects and still it is there. It is up to each of us to do our parts within our families, circles of friends, and our communities and to serve as examples and champions of decency. If our children hear us calling someone names or laughing about differences they will surely believe that doing so is acceptable. We can one by one do our best to stop bullying by being kind in our own interactions with people. We can also teach our young how to work together to look for those who are alone or suffering and include them rather than simply leaving them to be alone. Everyone has a part of their souls that makes them beautiful. It’s up to us to help them show how wonderful they really are. We all need to ensure that the “Evelyns” in our world have a reason to smile.