A Coward’s Way

As I idly turn the brittle pages of an old book that has been sitting on my shelf for years, its cover buried beneath layers of dust and cobwebs, my eyes catch on a line:

……Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do……”

Involuntarily, I glance at my hands and find myself swept away by a wave of emotion to a different time, a different moment; a moment so small, so insignificant, I thought it lost in the vast mazes of the past.

8th grade. A cold January morning, and to accompany it, an even colder memory. I was sitting chattering happily with my friend as girls usually do, when our English teacher, who also happened to be our class teacher, breezed in. She was one of those teachers who were friendly at the same time maintaining the order in the class by keeping us interested outside of the usual boring school stuff. On that day, she came up with bullying. A few days back from then, some senior students had made posters protesting against bullying and put them up in the corridors. I can’t remember much of what she had said except for encouraging us to speak up against it and some girl actually standing up to tell us how she had been teased for doing her upper lips because they were oh so perfect. Which, I thought, was a compliment.

Anyhow, while she was talking, my so-called friend suddenly got it into her head to point out all my physical faults to me in front of two other girls. She leaned in as if sharing something juicy and went like: Oh Maryam! Look at your hands, they are so boyish! And then she giggled as if she had said something extremely funny. I laughed along with her acting like I didn’t care about my appearance at all. Meanwhile, in an attempt to make us participate in the discussion and an effort to maybe know us better, the teacher had started asking us one by one whether we had ever been bullied. Even then, I remember reflecting ironically on the timing of the question.

I could think of a million times when I had been carelessly made the recipient of somebody’s harsh words, but when it came my turn, I, ever the fearless coward, looked her straight in the eye and told her, “No, I have never been bullied.” she didn’t seem to believe me and once more, she asked. Once more I said, “No, I have never been.”

I open my eyes, unaware I had closed them, a previously absent air of melancholy surrounding me. With a sigh, I close the book and move to lie down.

I regret not telling her, yes I have been bullied. I regret not having pointed out the bully, I regret being a quiet mouse. most of all, I regret not answering the other girl in kind. I regret the wounds to my self confidence that could have been avoided if I had been a little more brave and others a little less cruel. The sting of shame and embarrassment I felt that day was from a wound that never really closed.

Most times, hurtful things are said unintentionally by people in whose eyes, they are completely harmless jokes. But you see, for a person who has already been bullied more than once, they ruin his self-confidence and value, for then he assumes those things are true.

Bullying intentionally is something shunned everywhere; everyone would like to consider themselves innocent of the deed. But think about it, have you really never not? Have you really never not made a harmless joke about someone’s appearance or occupation or anything personal? Do you really think they were harmless? No, they weren’t. They cut deep, reopening the wounds that had only just begun to heal; and coming from loved ones, they sounded true.

You never know when your carelessly thrown words might fall like arrows to someone’s heart, penetrating the flimsy walls of their defense and killing them inside even as they smile and laugh along with you.

For that is the best defense we think we have. We already feel inferior and ashamed of ourselves, so we smile and act like it’s no big deal. We feel if we react we will be making ourselves more vulnerable at the same time looking stupid for not being able to take a joke. My fellow victims, I can assure you, you will indeed look stupid in the eyes of others but at least you will know you are in the right. And knowing you are right has a way of making you feel brave and uncaring of other’s opinion. And that, in itself, is a remedy.

For even when doing it unintentionally and unconsciously, our conscience always knows what we are doing. We just sometimes ignore it to sound cool, to be cool, to be admired. So when you go up to that person and tell them you didn’t like what they said, they will make excuses, perhaps they will never accept their mistake but they will know. And you will know too.

It’s not about exchanging insults; that will never get you anywhere. For it won’t heal your wounds. Those wounds will only heal when you stop running away from the noose around your neck; for the more you try to run, the more it tightens. In order to be free, you have to take the noose in your hands and work through the knot.

At long last, my eyelids grow heavy and I fall into a fitful sleep.

head held high
she turned around
embraced the demon
grip strong as iron
all the pain
all the truth
she took it all
and walked away
free at last…

The Author: Maryam Atta

The afore mentioned quote was by the author, “Mark Twain”.

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