My mother told me of a girl with whom she went to school. The girl was different in that she was looking for attention, and not always positive attention. My mom described how the girl would wear heavy make-up and bright red lipstick. The girl would wear inappropriate clothing and pose a lot. Even if you took away all of these outward eccentricities, the girl was still a little different. Everyone snickered behind her back.
Mom explained that later she found out that the girl was a victim of an abusive father. She said, “That was something none of the children could have wrapped their minds around at the time.” The abuse was horrific and drove the girl into a life of prostitution. I didn’t pay much attention to my mother’s story at the time. I thought she was being preachy—anyway I wouldn’t make fun of a “different” kid. I’m not like that.
We were in P.E. class. Girls always snickered at Joyce and looked down on her. Joyce was big and awkward. She was also very quiet. When it came time to learn square dancing, nobody wanted to partner with Joyce. The guys standing in my line were making jokes about getting stuck with Joyce as a dancing partner. Some of the jokes were actually funny in a comedic sort of way. I stood there trying to keep a cork in it. You just didn’t want to get involved with the meanness of the pack, but some of the stuff they said was funny. I let out a guffaw when Andy mumbled his silly limerick while Omar sputtered a downbeat. It was something about Joyce, bad choice, and some other rhyming foolishness.
Even though I was not the one making the joke, I was the one who laughed. I laughed loudly, at that. If I could turn red, it would have been beet red. Of course the teacher came to me and all of a sudden I was the one who had planned, perpetrated, executed, and even laughed at the joke made at Joyce’s expense. With the teacher’s accusing glare boring a hole into the top of my head, I decided that to defend myself was pointless. I also realized in a split second that laughing (even at the joke) not at Joyce in particular, still affected Joyce. I therefore was complicit in the meanness. I didn’t intend for it to turn out that way. I wished I could have held that laugh or explained how I wasn’t laughing at Joyce but at the silliness of Andy and Omar. All that was mute in light of Joyce’s feelings, and I felt ashamed.
Sorry wasn’t enough to comfort Joyce from the baggage that weighed her down. I know what my mom was getting at when she shared the story of the “different” girl. I thought of what sadness brought Joyce to her current size and insecurities. If I could contribute anything positive to her experience I would have gladly done so, then and there. I was mute, with only my future actions to serve as penance for my poorly timed moment of levity.