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 in the middle of 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 to whom the driver was speaking. There were about twenty of us on the bus—the majority in the last eight rows. When no one moved he flushed a violent shade of purple and looked 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.
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 who caught my eye and others who averted their gaze—and understood in that moment I wasn’t being reprimanded for poor behaviour. The only person of colour on the bus (one of two minorities), I was being admonished for the mischief that had taken place. I stood out, sorely, when there was trouble or if someone was annoyed. Perps are easy to call out when biases are leaned on.
I stared into the watery eyes of that middle-aged, miserable man as one girl piped up, “It wasn’t her. She was asleep!” But did he care? Of course not. Ignoring her, he revved the engine, drowning out the thudding of my heart in my chest. Someone behind me groaned. Another whined, “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. Along the way I made sure to say loudly, enough for everyone to hear, “I didn’t do anything but I get it. It’s 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.
That collective silence is what distressed me the most.
When we arrived at school I got off the bus and rushed home to lock 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. 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 some of my core assumptions about the world shifted. I understood that being a strong athlete may have helped me adjust and find some acceptance, but it didn’t truly level the playing field. Prior to that incident, I was inclined to be open and engaging. Afterwards, I hesitated when forging connections or placing too much trust in others since even the most well-intentioned may not 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 I allowed the memory to fade. In the end, I decided not to bother.
Experience discrimination often enough and you learn the importance of choosing your battles.
Even though I buried that bus ride with the infantile man pretty deep in my consciousness 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 some marks. Stubborn scars that took some time 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 or that Person X had all the answers and 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 and 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 and discard what no longer works. If there’s any remaining pieces (invaluable experiences) I’m the one who carries them forward.
But while being my own hero is the fundamental moral of this story, equally important was not closing myself off to the allies who got off the sidelines and offered to have my back and look out for my best interests. They—like that small handful of high school girls I once knew—lent an ear, raised their voices, and put on their fucking kneepads to hit the ground and run my defence.
And, as in the past, the insight I received reshaped my perspective to reinforce 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, draw a map, and help you chart EVERY LAST escape route. They will, if only for a moment, step up and perform Marvel-type heroics. Taking some of the heat, they’ll endure it long enough for you to tend to your wounds.
A small act of grace that makes a world of difference.