Innocent Bystanding

Well, I’ve been MIA for a while due to my second round of revisions, but I’m back! At some point, I may even get around to talking about revision and structure and what it means to sit down and really take stock of your story, but right now, I’m in the mood to talk about high school. Specifically, I’m in the mood to talk about that ever-popular literary cliché, The First Day.

Unfortunately, I have no cohesive written account of this event. It’s kind of too bad, because I’d really love to know what my fifteen-year-old self would have said about it.

Suffice it to say, there was an incident, and that incident clearly made an impression, because I continued to mention it in my journal for the rest of the year. But at the exact moment that it happened, I was far too mortified to write it down.

On the first day of school, I had to stand in line in the counseling office to pick up my class schedule.

I was on a natural-selection kick (yes, you can have those) and had assembled what can only be termed a scientifically-informed outfit.

It went like:

Plain navy blue T-shirt, not quite fitted, but not too big. Cut-off denim shorts. Turf shoes, which were the only sneakers I owned that didn’t have cleats attached to the bottom. To prevent my hair from attracting attention, I braided it into a ballet bun—dainty, demure, conservative. Totally inoffensive. This is the apparel-based definition of protective coloration.

None of my efforts mattered, as you will see in a moment.

For the sake of this narrative—my stats:

Height: short
Width: twig
Depth: impenetrable
Volume: mute

So, the story. There’s this girl (me) standing in the scheduling line, not bothering anyone. She has on this completely terrible Wal-Mart wristwatch. It’s ugly the way a codfish or a potato is ugly, by which I mean, it is so ugly that it’s not even ironic-ugly. It is black polyvinyl, she hates it, it is water resistant to 20 feet.

There’s this boy (douchebag)* standing in line just behind her. I say boy, because looking back, I realize that no matter how I viewed him at the time, he was young—eighteen, nineteen. But from the perspective of the girl, who is fifteen and completely unused to institutionalized learning, he is the very picture of authority. He’s terrifyingly adult-looking, with capped teeth and weight-room muscles. He has a stupid little festival of facial hair. He has a neck tattoo, okay? He is not a boy.

He’s visibly bored, clearly at the top of the social food chain. He takes pleasure in the fact that there are very few obstacles to prevent him from doing whatever he wants. She notes this, because she is nothing if not observant. Her observation is reinforced a minute later when he reaches out and takes hold of her wrist.

Remember folks, she hates this watch. But that is not the reason she doesn’t stop him. The reason is mysterious. The reason is that the situation is just too bizarre, and no stranger has ever taken the liberty of touching her without permission.

The buckle is a cheap one. It sticks and he has to work at it. She doesn’t look at him. She stands placidly, patiently, while he undoes the buckle and removes the watch from her wrist.

Anyone shaking their heads in disbelief yet? Because I am. I was there, and I’m still marginally scandalized by my behavior.

I did look back at him. Once. It didn’t prove to be a very effective defense tactic. I don’t know what he saw, because he smiled—this wide, carnivorous smile—and then I just looked at the floor. I was mortified. I was mystified and petrified, and still, I couldn’t stop thinking that this was by far one of the most interesting things that had ever happened to me in my entire life.

I went to my first class, which was Geometry. My errant watch-thief was there. His seat was directly across the aisle from mine. Until he got dropped from the class a month later, he would periodically lean over and hold up his wrist so I could read the time.

We never spoke. Occasionally, I wrote flippant, angry things about him in reference to other events (and once, in reference to William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies), but only because I didn’t want to admit that I was actually angry with myself.

I recognized that I had set a precedent of inactivity. But at fifteen, I was content to accept that, if it meant avoiding conflict. My greatest horror was Making a Scene. Occasionally I wondered what would have happened if I’d objected—just snatched my wrist back and told him to go to hell—but not with any real curiosity.

I didn’t think much about things like personal integrity or establishing reasonable boundaries. Hey, at that point, I hadn’t even figured out that the person I was actually mad at was myself.

After giving the matter a great deal of insufficient thought, I concluded the only thing that would be different if I’d protested was that I would still have my watch.**

*Can I say douchebag? I think I can—they say it on network TV. Okay, I’m leaving it in.
**Several weeks later, my mom asked me what had happened to the watch. Always the literalist, I told her that I’d lost it.

13 thoughts on “Innocent Bystanding

    • That’s an awesomely bizarre story.
      Seriously, high school was pretty much the most bizarre thing ever. This was just a handy way to kick things off. I think it’s like writing–if you set the right tone early on, nothing else is very surprising.

    • Also, I just looked at your site, and we basically like all the same stuff(!) except, I hatehatehate The Sun Also Rises. But there’s a perfectly reasonable story behind that. There pretty much always is . . .

  1. Douchebag? I checked all the utube fight clubs (thank goodness for mobile phone cameras), nope no douchebag, and no fights started over stolen watches. If I was in the line, at 15, I would have got your watch back for you. I wouldn’t be able to speak to you though.

  2. This is a wonderfully weird little story. :) I love your list of stats. Hee.
    Strangely, this sort of thing has happened to me before. I, too, said nothing… until last year, when the douchebag in question went after a friend of mine instead of me (a first!). Then I spoke up, finally, at age 24 (better late than never?), and was rewarded with getting shoved to the ground.
    Speaking up is overrated? Or maybe the moral of the story is that people are weird.. very, very weird.

    • I think it’s like some weird rite of passage (not watch-theft, because that’s pretty specific, but being put on the spot and then freezing).
      During the course of HS, I got marginally better at speaking up, but only in extreme circumstances. And to this day, I prefer to avoid conflict whenever possible.

  3. I’ve had something similar happen to me in school. My reaction was pretty much like yours–frozen, blank disbelief. Though the odd thing about this particular bully was the pseudo-affectionate, and dare I say, almost friendly/flirtatious way he picked on people. More like an older sibling asserting dominance.
    I like the phrase “carnivorous smile.”

    • I’m kind of surprised at how many people are mentioning similar incidents–it’s crazy! When I look back, I do think that my fifteen-year-old self probably had a way different interpretation of the watch-thief than I would now. Now, I think he would seem less predatory and more playful.

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