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Dear Teen Me

Posted: 10/15/2014

Dear Iris,

There's a girl in your school everyone hates. You know who I'm talking about. Tina. Why? You'll never know. Sorry, but that will remain one of your life's great mysteries, more personal than where Jimmy Hoffa's body is buried or who killed Jon Benet Ramsey.

She rides your bus, lives in your town. You know her better than most. You don't really like her either. Maybe her voice grates on your nerves. Maybe it's her braying laugh. Maybe it's her superior attitude. You aren't sure exactly why you don't like her, but you don't hate her either. Why does everyone else seem to hate her? Why are they so mean to her?

You can see her pedaling frantically down that dusty unpaved road in rural New Jersey. Her home is probably a half mile back, not that you can see it much through all the sandy soil her wheels have kicked up. The Garden State. Farmland. Hot and humid.

The people here have sharp edges to them and if you aren't careful they'll cut you to the bone. You weren't used to that when you first moved north from the Deep South. You were a Georgia peach—sweet and soft and easily bruised. You eventually learned how to handle the blades properly, avoid those edges, toughen up from the rogue nicks. You learned to love the blunt honesty, the transparency of their regard for other people.

But your heart hurts watching Tina move closer. Even the bus driver seems to hate her. You hear his grumbles rise in a chorus with all the others'. He revs the engine, closes the door. Tina jumps off the bike in a frantic attempt to cover those last few feet. She miscalculates, though, and stumbles in the dirt. The bus roars with laughter.

Why does she have to put herself out there for ridicule, make herself an even larger target?

The driver opens the door. Still hurrying, Tina brushes herself off as she mounts the steps. Her bike is in an abandoned mangle half on and half off the road. She doesn't seem to care about it, only making the bus, going to school. Why is she so intent on climbing inside the lion's den?

A boy slaps her on the back of the head as she passes down the aisle. He tacks on a few choice words. Her head snaps forward from the ferocity of the blow. She doesn't turn to confront him, doesn't say a word. Another boy strikes her, even harder. Her glasses are nearly jostled off her face. A nudge of her knuckle straightens them. Her eyes scan for an empty seat. Her house is one of the last stops. There aren't many seats left. Inside you're praying she doesn't spot the empty seat next to you. Other people put their feet up or spread out their books to prevent her from sitting next to them.

To your relief she finds a spot several rows in front of you and sits. The bus takes off for the thirty-minute ride to the high school fed by multiple rural communities. Everyone eventually returns to their conversations, their radios, and their books. They forget about Tina. For now.

A few weeks later, there's a school assembly. A play. Yay! No class for fourth period. Thank you, thank you!

The play isn't all that good. You won't even remember what it was about years from now. What you will remember is Tina strolling out on that stage. She's in the play. Really?

The audience boos. Not just a few catcalls from the usual suspects. This sounds like the entire student body. She's speaking her lines, but you can't hear a word she says. The boos drown her out, but she's carrying on like nothing is wrong.

You aren't booing. You are trying to imagine what one person could have done to incite so much hatred people would boo her performance. You want a reason. You need a reason. Ice water runs through your veins and tingles creep over your scalp. You know this girl, her sister, her family. Your conscience is gnawing at you, telling you this is wrong; this is unfair; this is cruel.

But never once do you seriously consider doing anything to stop what's happening to Tina. After all, if they can do this to her, they can do it to you, too. Silence is your friend. Silence is your ally

I hate to tell you, but silence was a false friend who tricked you into participating in Tina's bullying. I know you probably aren't shocked to hear me say this. You've felt guilty about it for a while now. When you remember Tina, you will always feel guilty for being an accomplice by default.

You'll be happy to know I looked for and found Tina on Facebook the other day. I didn't think I would be able to track her down so easily, but I did. In hindsight, I shouldn't be surprised. I assumed life would have kept on kicking her and grinding her under its boot. I was wrong. She's a missionary in the Ukraine, has a big beautiful family with a husband and sons who look like leading men in romance novels. She looks happy and healthy, even if a few pounds plumper like so many of us. Wow. Good for her.

Now, you might be thinking: seems like that experience made her stronger and therefore, in the long run, it was good for her. Maybe. Maybe not. That's not the point. Tina is not the point of this letter or this story. The point is, her experience was your experience and it was bad for you. Unspoken outrage has a way of eating its way out, eventually, and it's not always pretty in the way it manifests—panic attacks, anxiety, depression, and deep regret.

Here's the deal. Speak up for the Tinas in your life. Don’t look the other way assuming that could have just as easily been you. Pay your debts as you go, and don't build up that huge guilt mortgage. You don't have to grandstand your support. You don't have to punch a bully in the nose or deliver a scathing rebuke. Sometimes all you need to do is wave Tina over to that empty seat next to you or clap for her performance or call your mom to go pick up her bike out of the dirt. Remember that.

With much love,

Iris

Iris St. Clair is the author of the recently released contemporary young adult novel, Louder Than Words, about a teen struggling to find the courage to speak up. Iris believes in the two-year "fish or cut bait" dating rule and has a 20+ year marriage and two sons as proof of concept. She lives, writes, dreams and dances in the rainy Portland, OR area.

By: Iris St. Clair

 
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