He was a Russian exchange student that had come to our high school at the beginning of the year. He had a tough time assimilating and most of us didn’t make it any easier. With his thick Russian accent, his style that was different than the trends at that time, and his general different understanding of cultural norms, he was just different. He walked an uphill path, making few friends, encountering more students that made fun of and bullied him. I wish I could say I was among the brave few that stood by his side and befriended him. I was not. I was one of the students that stood aside, my heart silently breaking for him.
I didn’t know much about him. I’m not sure I had any classes with him, but I knew he was one of the kids that just didn’t have it easy our senior year. When it came time to announce the homecoming court, it was the usual suspects. The girls and guys that you knew were the most popular. Except one. The Russian exchange student. He had been nominated. As a joke.
It put a pit in my stomach. I couldn’t believe that we could come together as a student body and unite to show our mean streak. Our ugly side. I felt helpless and in disbelief at the same time. How could we team up against one struggling student? But who was I to do anything about it? What could I do anyway?
It seemed to unfold before my eyes in slow motion. Was this really happening? It was really happening. How could the star students of our high school stand behind this? Think this up? Think it was funny? My heart silently broke more and more.
What I will never forget is how he responded to this cruelty and bullying towards him. Someone asked him if he was going to go through with it. He asked why he would not. “You know it’s a joke, don’t you?” “I know it’s a joke. It’s a joke to them, but not to me. But what did I do? Nothing. I’m going to live it up.” He accepted the nomination. He held his head high. And he joined in all the court activities, with his head raised high, standing firmly on the ground he deserved.
I can’t remember who ultimately won the title of Homecoming King. I remember how a class of students rallied and showed their snarling teeth. I remember the ache of feeling his isolation. But worst of all, I remember my silence.
This was a story of how one single exchange student was bullied. But he was not the weak one. He was never the weak one. He showed us all that he was better than all of us with his bravery, with his grace, with his head held high. We were the weak ones. We, that rallied behind a mean-spirited joke. We, that stood in herds, silent to it all.
What could I do anyway? How could I have stood up to something I knew was so wrong? I was just me, and I was no one to be known. But now I realize that I was wrong. There are so many things I could have done. Now, I realize that not everyone has to react in the same way. Some may publicly and loudly protest. Some may engage in heated discourse with those with whom they disagree. Some may work more quietly, befriending and standing by the side of those that need it most. Some may commit to public service. Showing solidarity in all forms from all perspectives is necessary. It is desperately needed. I know that now more than ever.
I regret and apologize for my silence when I could have been so much better; when I could have held my head high and stood alongside another human being that mattered.
I move forward knowing that it is my responsibility to challenge myself the way I didn’t challenge myself then. To show up. To be present. To stand up. I’ll do it in my own way. I hope you’ll find your way too.