Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Bystander Effect

I remember, in my junior year of high school, around springtime I think, attending this pep rally in the amphitheater one time during an extended passing period. It was not a special occasion. The school held these pep rallies regularly, about once a season, in order to drum up school spirit.

Every time, the "cool" black security guard would begin by getting on the mic and opening with a few words in a (usually unsuccessful) attempt to get the crowd pumped up. Then various club directors or student council members would make dull announcements about extracurricular activities, school dances, athletics, etc. And finally they would close with performances from the assorted cheer squads. Attendance was not strictly mandatory, as the busier or more cynical students were free to go to the library or study in the open classroom of any teacher who, for whatever reason, also did not care to attend the rally.

Personally, I did not have much enthusiasm for the affairs, nor did I know anyone who did, but I always attended anyway because I never had any legitimate reason not to. Besides, the students and faculty who actually had to take the stage to make announcements or perform obviously felt these pep rallies were worth their time and energy, and my time was certainly no more precious than theirs. While I understood that some people found these events to be boring and unproductive, I felt that, for me personally, it would have been pointlessly disrespectful not to give up those meager thirty minutes that I would otherwise have wasted anyway.

So, on that occasion, as always, I took a seat on one of the benches near the top, furthest away from the stage. It was always uncomfortably sunny no matter where one sat, and sitting up top was certainly not efficient for leaving quickly, since the exits were at the bottom. I suppose I gravitated toward the back just because I didn't like to imagine that some strange person behind me might be staring down at the back of my head, although I'm sure the rational part of me must have realized even then how ridiculous it was to think that anyone would care that much to notice the stranger seated in front of them. All around me indeed were students I did not know and would not remember. It seemed that my own classmates were almost always among those busy and/or cynical students who had other places to be and better things to do with their time.

The pep rally proceeded in typical fashion. The security guard played would-be hype man, beckoning us to "make some noise" and "raise the roof," and his enthusiasm was met mostly with mocking and ridicule from the hecklers around me. It may not have been the school's idea of "pep," but at least the crowd seemed energized. Then the various speakers came on to make their various announcements—nothing that left much of an impression on me. And finally they closed with some performances by the cheerleaders, dance squad, and color guard, not necessarily in that order. I'll admit that I usually enjoyed these parts. Although I didn't have much to judge them against, I always thought the girls worked hard and performed impressively. These were also typically the only segments to excite cheers from the audience, although it was difficult for me to discern whether the people yelling next to me were being genuine or again sarcastic. Well, perhaps things were made clearer by the events of that day.

The one routine that I'll never be able to forget was the color guard's. Less sporty or physical than the cheerleaders but perhaps more technical, these ladies took the floor wielding fake rifles, which they were to twirl around with finesse and toss into the air, catching them on the way down. I had seen it before, and they had always made it look effortless, as though the rifles were extensions of themselves.

On this day, however, one girl missed her toss, and instead of her catching it, the rifle struck the ground, then bounced and fell off the stage altogether. Amid all the hundreds (if not thousands) of flawless routines she had no doubt done before, a single minor mistake of that sort should have been expected sooner or later, just going by the odds, and it should have been perfectly forgivable, especially as it was occurring at a mere meaningless pep rally and not an actual game or more consequential ceremony. Yet it proved to be a terribly unfortunate slip.

A true professional, upon losing her rifle, the young lady continued according to protocol, maintaining position and working her hands through the air as though the rifle were still in them. Of course, I was only informed later that that was indeed what members of the color guard were trained to do in the event of such a conceivable mishap. I don't think anyone outside of the color guard had any idea what protocol was, and I suppose the poor girl must have looked rather silly to the crowd, as she went through the motions with her imaginary rifle. At least, the kids around me seemed greatly amused, as they loudly snickered and jeered her relentlessly through the remainder of the performance.

I couldn't understand how these people could be so mean-spirited as to take pleasure not only in her mistake but in their own attempts to exacerbate her misfortune by taunting her. It was brutal. I wanted somebody to do something to stop it. Why were our authority figures standing idly by while the scene grew uglier by the second?

As those seconds stretched into a slow-motion eternity, a crazy idea crossed my mind. I wanted to run down there, pick up the rifle, and toss it back to her so she could complete her routine the right way. Perhaps the idea was crazy, but I knew it in my bones that it would also have been right, and I was screaming on the inside for someone, anyone, to make it so. But nobody did anything, and neither did I.

The pep rally concluded, classes resumed, and most people simply went on with their day. But I continued to be confounded by my own inaction. Why didn't I do what I knew to be right? There was simply no reason I could find to justify it. Even if it would have been against protocol, which I would not even have known, this was not a formal situation, and she shouldn't have had anything to prove to us. Maybe because I was sitting far from the stage, it would have been a bit of a run to get down to the rifle and to her. But, even in that moment, I was positive that there would have been more than enough time for me to make that distance, which really should have been no obstacle. Was I afraid that, by standing up, I would have attracted the attention of the mob, which would then have directed the same contempt toward me as they had at her? No, not only was fear not a valid excuse, but I actually felt certain that, far from becoming another target of the crowd's scorn, I could have turned the situation around completely. Perhaps it was arrogant of me to think so, but I 100 percent believed that, had I done the right thing before all those people, as much as the girl's public misfortune could excite their cannibalistic cruelty, to the same extent would a genuine good gesture have inspired positive feelings in them, and their jeers would have become cheers, both for me and for her.

Indeed, the more I thought about it afterward, the more convinced I became that she was not the only one that needed a hand that day, but actually everybody present needed that moment to prove to them that the world was not the bad place they perceived it to be, that they too were all capable of being better, or rather acting as good as they actually were, only a few bad experiences having previously kept them from realizing it. Instead, as I let the world slip away into cynicism, I confirmed a different truth about myself that day. I learned that I was not a remarkable person, nor a very nice one, maybe not even a decent human being.

I remember some cynic once trying to convince me that we could only be as good or great as the occasion permitted, and for our spoiled generation living in these easy times, there were few opportunities for anyone to be anything more than mediocre. Yet when the call came that day for me to do the right thing, I simply sat there useless, unable to answer, or even to try.

The girl did not come to school the next day. I didn't know her or any other members of the color guard personally, but the word going around was that she was devastated and now felt too humiliated to show her face on a campus she saw (perhaps rightly) as hostile. I don't know if she ever did come back, but I know that she wasn't there come graduation (we were in the same year). The rumor was that she had dropped out or transferred, all because of the pep rally incident. Although it was, as far as I knew, just a rumor, and it was possible that she had transferred to a different school for unrelated reasons, still I felt terribly ashamed at this, as I'm sure everyone did in the aftermath.

Hopefully she recovered and grew up into a well-adjusted adult, for whom that day is now just a mostly forgotten footnote in an otherwise beautiful life story. As for me, although it all happened more than ten years ago, hardly a day has gone by since that I haven't thought about it. Looking back as the years passed by uneventfully, that scene became ever more a landmark in my memory. It may well have been a turning point in my life, when foolishly I missed the turn and allowed inaction to define me.

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