Being human means having a conscience (hopefully), even if we don’t always listen to it. In League of Strays, the main character Charlotte is tempted by the opportunity to become part of a group which seeks to pay back bullies by bullying them in return. She knows it isn’t right, but…Well, you’ll have to read the story to see whether revenge worked for her and the other characters.
This story will get readers talking. And at Emudebuts, the conversation’s been about times when we did something that went against our own consciences, and what we paid and/or learned as a result. Here’s a peek into our checkered pasts:
I was nine. I had transferred elementary schools and even after a year or so to adjust, I didn’t fit in with kids there. To be honest–they were mean. They took turns picking on one kid, ostracizing her, and then welcoming her back into the group only to turn on someone new. I had survived my week of misery, and they had moved on. I wasn’t sure how to act. I wanted to have friends, but I didn’t want to be mean to someone else. I remembered too well what it had felt like.
One day at recess, the group was taunting a girl while I stood there and watched. A teacher became involved and he reprimanded us all. “But,” I protested, “I didn’t say anything.” He turned to me and said in a voice straining with conviction that standing by and doing nothing was every bit as wrong. His words stung, and they stuck.
We talk about bullying as if it’s just a schoolyard thing, but it’s not. It’s something I encounter frequently in my adult life. Even now, 25 years later, I find myself checking my actions against that teacher’s words.
There is one teeny little scene on my book based on reality. I guess now is the time to admit it. No, I didn’t make out with a hot sociopath. But I did, with a few friends, mess up a French teacher’s room. It wasn’t nearly as bad as what my characters do, but there was some knocking of papers to the floor and drawing on the walls with chalk. This was when I was 14, pretty much the worse, most juvenile-delinquent time, in my life. But then one of the kids felt so guilty, she went right to the principal. Next thing I knew, I was in his office. And what did I do? I admitted everything, apologized to the French teacher, and offered to clean the cafeteria for a week. Oops, scratch that. OK, I denied it. Every last bit. In the end our principal, who was a bit on the lazy side, figured that it wasn’t worth the effort to figure out who’d done it, so he just dismissed it. I remember feeling several things: one, immense guilt at what I’d done to the teacher, and for lying about my part in it, and two, utter relief that the principal was going to let me go, even though he knew I participated. In the end, that one experience was so powerful that it partly motivated the writing of this book. I remembered what it was like to be a bored, angry teen, and the stupid things I did as a result. Even though I did them, they were a symptom of teen angst, more than who I was or would become as a person. Oh, and I remembered the value of a Get Out of Jail Free card. I didn’t waste it. From then on, I strived to be a much better person.
High school was a very, very difficult time for me. I was the target of a lot of bullying, enough so that it probably became the defining aspect of my high school years, at least in terms of self-definition. Sadly, there was more than one time when my response to being bullied was to turn around and try to bully someone else. There was one other guy in my graduating class – let’s call him Danny X. (not his real name) – who was similar to me in some ways. He was also a target of our school’s bully population, although I think he actually stood up to it better than I did. It was a mark of how damaged and insecure we both felt that we spent quite a lot of time bullying each other. You’d think we could have become friends, or at least perceived each other as fellow exiles in a land of sadistic immaturity, but no, instead we engaged in our own little war of derision.
One day I decided to put my writing skills to use and create a petition with a single question on it: “Is Danny X the biggest _______ in the world?” I circulated the petition, feeling a mean-spirited enjoyment in the attention it garnered. It came to blows, of course, and whatever else Danny may have been, he was certainly a much better fighter than me. I ended up with a goose egg on my forehead, which eventually healed, and a dark stain on my conscience, which is probably still there. I know why I did it, of course – it was because I was immersed in feelings of helplessness, rage, and self-loathing. Those feelings, particularly the self-loathing, made it sadly easy to lash out in a wholly unadmirable and hurtful way. I’ve regretted the entire incident ever since, and if I could go back in time and do it differently, I wouldn’t hesitate.
When I was seven, my family visited my grandparent’s home in a distant state. Next door lived a girl a couple of years older who I thought was the coolest. As grown-ups would put it, we “played well together.” We both loved spooky stories and TV shows, so when she suggested we write a bunch of scary notes and leave them anonymously around her neighborhood I was all in.
As you can imagine, the neighbors got quite upset at discovering threatening notes scrawled in child’s handwriting. It wasn’t long before we were busted. Our parents demanded that we go from house to house to apologize. But, sad to admit, I absolutely refused to, crying and stomping and throwing an Oscar-worthy tantrum. Now, as an adult, the tantrum bothers me as much as the crime itself. I wish I’d had the courage to take responsibility for my actions.
When I was in junior high (as we called it back then), I was a quiet,
overweight, glasses-wearing, book-reading goody two shoes. We lived in
the country, so I had about an hour-long bus ride to and from school
every day. The cool kids all sat in the back of the bus, and pulled off
all kinds of shenanigans, so one year the bus driver assigned us seats.
I was in the second-from-front seat, and whenever one of the cool kids
misbehaved, she made them come sit in the seat with me, where she could
keep an eye on them, and where, presumably, I would be a good influence.
Instead, it gave them an opportunity to pick on me, and they all came to
think of me as the bus driver’s accomplice. I felt like I was being
punished for being a good kid.
Somehow, I finally got to sit where I wanted, so I moved to the very
back of the bus and looked for my chance to prove myself as a cool kid
and not a bus-driver’s pet. That chance came in the form of a fire
cracker and book of matches, that were given to me with the instructions
to light it and throw it under the seats, so it would go off 1/2 way up
the bus. I lit it, but the “cool kids” had, as a double prank, cut the
wick extra short, so before I could throw it, it exploded in my lap. It
blew the cover off of my library book, which appropriately enough, was
GONE WITH THE WIND.
In the end, I was suspended from riding the bus for a week, after my
sister confessed all (except that she had been the one to smuggle the
matches onto the bus.) And I had to pay for the library book. And the
worst consequence is that I have never lived it down with my family.
I can’t say I’m racked with guilt about what I did, although I’m a
little ashamed at having been so easily drawn in by peer pressure. But I
do think as a teacher, I am always mindful about thrusting the trouble
students onto the good students to try to reform them. I understand that
that is torture for the good students, and an unfair “reward” for their
efforts. I also learned that you can’t fake who you are. I am the nerdy
good kid. I have to accept that and embrace it; trying to be someone I
am not tends to lead to disaster.
How about you? Got any youthful indiscretions you want to get off your chest? Better yet, a lesson learned? It could be such a relief to finally come clean…
L.B. Schulman’s book is sure to spur a lot of conversation around bullying and how to deal with it. Hopefully it will raise probing questions and productive conversation around a topic that’s far too often in the headlines.
Remember, if you want a chance to win a copy of LEAGUE OF STRAYS, comment on any Emudebuts post this week to be entered into a drawing.