As a girl in the 7th grade, I wanted what every other girl wanted-- to be popular. 7th grade was my year to make my comeback in the social spotlight, especially since my braces came off over summer and my hair finally grew out after I let my girlfriend give me a trim. To say the least, I planned on making quite the entrance on the first day of school. I nagged my mom about taking me shopping to make sure I was dressed to the nines, as if my parents didn't just spend thousands of dollars to make sure I wouldn't get made fun of for having buck-teeth.
The first day of school lived up to my great expectations. "Cute outfit!" "Nice haircut!" "Where were you all summer?!" "You should get ready for the back-to-school dance with us on Friday!" Being a 7th grader meant hanging out with the big kids. We weren't at the bottom of the food chain anymore. Fitting-in was as fun as it looked in all the teen movies I wasn't supposed to watch. I didn't have lipgloss stuck around the rubber-bands of my braces anymore. Instead, I had a new found confidence that made me want to go to school in the morning. I didn't know how lucky I was to have that confidence - not every kid had that.
I got ready for the back-to-school social with my girlfriends. We took our time getting ready, because that's apparently what the popular girls do - change at least four times, add some glitter hairspray and apply lipgloss strictly every fifteen minutes just in case it smudges (or, at least, that's what the perfectly polished girls did in my day).
School dances were a new experience for me: the girls and boys on their opposite sides of the gym, a couple teachers armed with rulers, preparing to measure the space between slow-dancing students and the enthusiastic DJ, encouraging us to play silly hula-hoop games we were clearly too cool for.
I made it a point to bolt to the ladies room to re-gloss anytime I heard a slow song coming. By the third slow song, I couldn't escape in time. Just past the double-doors, I heard someone following me. "HEY! Want to dance?" I was almost excited until I saw that the boy following me was Patrick. Patrick was, by junior-high definition, a "nerd." We once sang a choir duet together and we'd been in a few classes together but I didn't particularly want to dance with him. Patrick was probably made fun of almost daily. I wasn't sure why. Maybe it was because of the way he dressed or maybe it was because he also had braces and a goofy haircut, but he didn't have the same confidence I came back to school with. I hesitantly agreed to dance and he eagerly led me to the gym, where our peers would surely have a few wisecracks to make.
My girlfriends exchanged confused looks. I started getting nervous. The night was going so well until someone shouted, "look who's dancing with Patrick!!" This was one of those terrifying middle-school moments I wish I made up. I tried to keep dancing but I couldn't help but feel attacked. "I'm gonna go use the restroom." I stopped dancing and ran out of the gym until the song was over. I could hear a few laughs behind me, feeling pretty crummy inside, as if I was the victim. I went home and told my mom about my night and she looked disappointed in me. I thought she just didn't understand how important my "reputation" was, but it turns out I was the one who had a momentary lapse of judgement. Like I said, I really didn't know why so many kids made fun of Patrick. I should have danced with him, especially because he was nice enough to ask me.
I never apologized to Patrick. We're both adults now and I'm sure that if I remember that dance, he probably does too. I'm sure he has his own version of that story and maybe I'm the bad-guy in his version. Patrick was a really great person who got bullied because someone decided they had some status of superiority. I didn't think I did anything wrong at the time, but I did. I made a big deal out of something that was really nothing and let everyone else laugh at a person who didn't deserve it. Looking back, I know why my mom was disappointed in me and I hope I can share this story with my daughter someday.
I wasn't the only teenager who watched someone get bullied and didn't do anything about it. I could have danced with Patrick and maybe we would have both gotten made fun of. If I wasn't so concerned with what my classmates said, we both would have had an okay time.
I didn't do or say anything. I ran away and my lack of action contributed to the problem. And then I proceeded to be a jerk to the boy because I was embarrassed and too proud, working to protect my "pristine" reputation.
Even the little things we do and say affect people. It would be egotistical to think that me turning down a boy for a dance ruined the rest of his school year, but I'm sure it didn't make him feel great. Too many young people often forget the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Luckily, I do my best to live by this rule as an adult. Unfortunately, the truth is that we don't always grow out of the social habits we develop when we're younger. Standing up for others doesn't ruin your reputation. Standing up for others is a simple act of decency that may break a few social ties, but your reputation will stay in tact with the people whose time and friendship you'll value the most.
(Marina Orievsky studied Communication at the University of Washington where she put her focus on journalism and social media. She has worked with Revolution Inc. and Papersalt since January 2012, contributing blog material about life lessons and about her personal experiences with transitioning from teenage years to adulthood.)