And, like in the past, the insight I received reshaped my perspective and reinforced something I’ve always known: personal circumstances may vary but the human experience is shared. Regardless of what you’ve been through, you are never alone.
I was 16 when it sunk in I’d have to stand my ground because no one else would do it for me. Seated at the back of the school bus, I leaned my head against the window and closed my eyes while raucous talk and laughter filled the air. Teenagers from two volleyball teams engaged in normal, post-game banter. It was nothing out of the ordinary.
But for whatever reason, twenty minutes from home the bus driver veered sharply to the right. He pulled the bus onto the shoulder of the road and screeched to a halt. The ribbing and jeering stopped as the driver eyeballed the lot of us in the rearview mirror. Dusk had fallen but two lines of bitterness were etched on his forehead. Deep wrinkles of ignorance and petulance surrounded his mouth.
He barked something about being too rowdy and pointed a finger. “You! Get up to the front and stop causing trouble.”
Everyone looked around, slack-jawed. It was unclear who the driver was speaking to. There were about twenty of us on the bus—the majority in the last ten rows. When no one moved he flushed a violent shade of purple and turned to look directly at me, “We’re not going anywhere until you move up here.”
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and cocked my head. Looking at the girl to my right, I mouthed, What? Me?
“Yeah, I’m talking about YOU,” the driver spat maliciously.
A ball of heat turned over in my stomach and burned a trail of embarrassment, rage, and shame up to my throat. I looked at classmates and pseudo-friends—some caught my eye, others averted their gaze—and understood I wasn’t being reprimanded for poor behaviour. As the only person of colour on the bus (one of two minorities), I was being admonished for the mischief that had taken place.
I stared into the watery eyes of that middle-aged, miserable man as one girl piped up, “Hey, it wasn’t her. She was asleep!” But did he care? Of course, he didn’t. Ignoring her, he revved the engine, drowning out the thudding of my heart in my chest. Someone behind me groaned. Another whined quietly, “Fuck, I have to pee.”
Tired and hungry, I grabbed my gym bag from under the seat and walked down the aisle to the front of the bus. However, along the route I made sure to say loudly, enough for everyone to hear, “I didn’t do anything but I get it. This is a ‘black thing’. Right?”
The driver didn’t reply as I slid into the seat a few rows behind him. He shot me a final look of contempt before shifting the bus into gear. Highway lights threw burnished disks onto my face as I dug my nails into my palms. No one spoke above a whisper for the remainder of the ride.
The collective silence of my peers distressed me the most.
When we arrived at the school I got off the bus and rushed home where I locked myself in my room. The next day, I went to class and acted like everything was normal. In the end, there was no comeuppance for the driver. And why should there have been? I didn’t tell my mother what happened. I never raised the issue with the high school principal or volleyball coach.
What happened that day was a few of my core assumptions shifted. I understood that being athletic may have helped me adjust and find acceptance, but sports didn’t truly level the playing field. Prior to that incident, I was inclined to be open and engaging. Afterwards, I knew it was okay to hesitate when forging connections or placing too much trust in others.
Because even the most well-intentioned won’t always show up or stick their neck out.
This isn’t to say nobody cared. A few, friends and teammates, approached me a couple days later, shaken by the ordeal. Some expressed concern. Others spewed anger. All suggested we do something. I heard them out and said I’d think about it but the weeks passed and the memory faded. In the end, I decided not to bother.
Experience discrimination often enough and you learn the importance of choosing your battles.
I buried that bus ride with the infantile man pretty deep but it has come to the surface a handful of times in the last two decades. Most recently, it reared its head when something with similar undertones happened a couple months ago, setting me off—in the same way sparks fly when a firing pin makes contact with the back end of a bullet.
The details don’t matter but what does is being, figuratively, thrown under the bus and feeling small and alone in the aftermath. It wasn’t a big deal in the grand scheme but it left a couple of marks. The stubborn scars took a while to fade. My confidence took a hit. I found myself reevaluating who to trust.
These frustrations deepened when I tried to break it down and confided in people who seemed eager to help but gave me a series of non-committal shrugs or the That’s just the way it is plugs. I suppose that’s why it took weeks to get sorted. I had to drop a ton of expectations: that Person X had all the answers or Person Y should have come to my defence.
I forgot I’m the sole guardian of 75% of the outcomes in my life. It’s my job to trod through the uncomfortable muck—thick like quicksand and rough like sandpaper—to find answers I can live with or ones that will allow me to reset…time and time again. At least I figured out relatively quickly that I had to break it down, discard what no longer works, and carry all pieces (invaluable experiences) forward.
But while being my own hero is the fundamental moral of this story, equally important was not closing myself off to allies who got off the sidelines and offered to look out for my best interests. They—like that handful of high school girls I once knew—lent an ear, raised their voices, or put on their fucking kneepads and hit the ground on defence.
And, as in the past, the insight I received reshaped my perspective and reinforced something I’ve always known: personal circumstances may vary but the human experience is shared. Regardless of what you’ve been through, you are never alone.
Things may be rough. You might down for the count. But I promise, someone, somewhere, will (if asked) hear you out, don their cape and help you mark EVERY LAST escape route. They will, if only for a moment, step up and perform atomic heroics. Taking some of the heat, they’ll hang onto it long enough for you to tend to your wounds.
Small acts of grace that make a world of difference.