Tuesday, May 1, 2012

When Reality Hits

“Almost there—we’re so close to reaching the forbidden ruby tablet!” I shout up the ancient Peruvian cave. “Lower me deeper!” I feel my sturdy rope loosen as the slack lowers me further into the abyss. “Just two more feet and I can snatch it!” I yell up in greedy lust, grasping my backpack in search for that old rusty canteen burrowed somewhere deep within that black hole I call my explorer’s bag. Suddenly- sirens. Alarms from all directions greet my ears. I yelp as a bright red light as tiny as a pinhole comes racing at me, rapidly growing in size. My screams echo across the dripping cave walls as the light consumes me and I am left in darkness.
The alarms continue to sound. I groan in grogginess and reach my hand over to feel for that familiar black, plastic rectangle and hit the “off” button in dismay. As the sirens abruptly stop, the blackness of the cave begins to fade. I pry my eyes open and warily sit up against my cotton bed sheets, thinking to myself, “Just another typical dream. Just another typical Tuesday.”
Merely an hour later, I’m already shredding up the sidewalk on my skateboard headed to school. The incredible rush of movement, the wind rustling through my chestnut brown ringlets, the sound of dirty plastic wheels smacking the pavement- it’s what I live for. Those burly sycamore trees to my left and to my right have become a blur as I whirl past them in delight, taking in a breath of fresh Minnesota air, hoping this glorious moment will never die. It is then that I realize—I have already reached school.
Back to reality.
I gracefully hop off my board and strut through the double doors of Fairmont High School with suave, precision, and charm—things I had learned over the years from being included in “the popular crowd”.  –Okay, I know what you’re thinking. It’s not that I actually enjoy their company. I guess it’s more of a self-image thing- to feel wanted and important and beautiful and of high status and… and, and, most of all, to feel like I have it all together. Even though I don’t. Even though I never have. Even though it’s a long shot to think that I ever will. It’s sick, really. But it’s all I’ve ever known.

My thoughts carry me back to the present moment as I enter the main hallway in hopes to get to my biology class before the late bell rings. Ready for the day to be over before it even begins, I sigh and fall into my routinely rut that carries me throughout the day. It’s so extremely regular that I could list it all off without a second thought: Strut into school, talk with Sara and Ashlee to make myself look good, fall asleep in biology, paint my nails in algebra, sit with the popular table at the lunch… the list could go on forever. You see, I have it all down to a science. And nothing can change that.
I’m still conversing with Sara and Ashlee up until the minute bell, and even then I still casually stroll right along to class like I have all the time in the world. The school halls are roaring with laughter and brilliant smiles, and the glowing faces of teenagers light up the walkway. But that’s when—everything begins happening in slow motion. In the bustle of school halls, undistinguished blurs of faces I had once been familiar with circle my vision as I pause in a trance-like state. The piercing screams, the scrambling students, the uncontrollable urge to want to disappear—it all seems so vain considering the circumstances, yet so necessary in the time at hand. This situation that we, our entire student body, are faced with turns out to be unbelievably grueling and heart-wrenching.
As everyone runs and crouches down in safe distance, all eyes are on one student—the student who had shot a gun at the ceiling just seconds ago. I stay standing. I’m not afraid. We all turn to a crazed version of this young soul we had all once known, in unpredictable expectancy of what was to happen next.
Quivering students.
Traumatized cries.
As I stand directly across the hall from him, he looks my way and points his gun up to the ceiling once more. BANG! Tears streaming down my face, I whisper, “Jackson.” My voice cracks. I only have enough strength to squeak out one more word: “Why?” So many questions, so much confusion, so much… so much regret.
In the background, our student body is crying, shaking even, out of fear of Jackson, of what’s to come, of everything within this moment. Our worlds are now defined by terror and despair, all wrapped up as one package. “What led you to this point?” I ask quietly, trembling, as if realizing for the first time that we are the only two people standing. Following this question, it seems as if the silence continues rolling along like a film—for hours upon end, until finally, he breaks it. Or maybe it was just a few seconds. Who could tell? The distress was so unbearable that I couldn’t even put words together correctly. Everything I knew was suddenly jumbled.
Clutching the gun, Jackson moves forward. He shouts, “Is this what you wanted? Is this what you all intended? Slowly killing me with your words, your hatred… Did you really expect me just to survive all of it? To ignore it? To not take it to heart? Well I have news for you. I am human. I’m capable of feeling pain, too—just as much as any of you are! I guess I just wasn’t worth it though, huh?” He is sweating now, gritting his teeth and squeezing his eyes shut.
A few girls begin to whisper towards the back of the hallway and Jackson looks over and notices. He pauses, then lowers his voice: “I thought you would listen to me. This one time, I thought it was going to be different. I thought you people would be a little more respectable than that. I thought that maybe, just maybe you would give me the courtesy of regarding me before my death. For once in my life, I need someone to listen to me! Do you think you could give me that? Just once?” The wide-eyed girls immediately shut their mouths in shame.
Jackson goes on. “Did you know that every night for the past year I’ve gone home and let your words sink in to me until I felt that they were the only words I had ever known? Did you know that every night I cry myself to sleep because of how you treat me? How you harass me? Did you know that I felt alone? That I had no real friends in my life? That everyone was ashamed to be around me because of the “rep” they would get for doing so? Did you know that I was depressed? That sooner or later the results would come to this? You did know. You just never cared.” Jackson slowly points the tip of the gun to his brain. “And since you never cared, I guess my death with be nothing to you either.” Finger on the trigger, he is milliseconds away from imminent death. I gasp as my heart skips a beat, paralyzed in motionless time.
In a moment of courage, a tiny girl named Abby stands up. Being the quiet type, Abby is not usually the one to speak up, but her heart of gold speaks for her in the spur of this moment. She takes the chance that I fail to take. The chance I’m not courageous enough to take. She intervenes. In a feeble cry, she screams, “Don’t shoot! Please… don’t… shoot…,” each word separated by hyperventilation and petrification. Gasps are heard all around as all eyes turn to this little girl with the gold cross hanging around her neck.
At these words, we all expect him to stop—to reconsider his life, to give us all a second chance. But just as the attention fades off of Jackson, he does it.
He shoots.
A pang of excruciating exasperation washes over my fragile heart. I shriek in forlorn as I rush over to him, in some prideful yet hopeful attempt at erasing it all—at going back in time to just a few seconds earlier, when Jackson’s afflicted soul lived on among ours.
I’m too late.
Jackson drops to the floor as his head gushes a river of crimson. His hand loosens grip, releasing the gun which then falls to his side. It all happens so fast: the bullet, the clank of the gun dropping, the impact of his body hitting the ground, the mourning of students around him, those who don’t care and walk right on to class—and then there’s me. Then there’s me, convulsing on the ground right there in the middle of the entire school. My body is shaking, my tears are so intensely painful that they aren’t even coming out anymore, and my head is reeling thoughts of compassion and wonder.
Unanticipatedly, I get up and I run. I run as fast as these two legs of mine will carry me, in an insufficient attempt to get as far away from the scene as I can.
Ever since that first bullet in the ceiling, my guilt has been killing me. Did Jackson remember all those times I was with Ashlee and Sara when they bullied him? I mean, it’s not like I did anything. I just played along. I just listened, and occasionally laughed along with them. But I didn’t really say anything, so I’m not at fault.  Right? Yes, of course that’s right. I’m being ridiculous. I had no part in Jackson’s death. –Or at least I can’t bring myself to consider the alternative.
At this thought, a single tear swims down my puffy, red-stained cheeks. I wonder what might have happened had I spoken up. If I had defended him, befriended him—maybe he would still be alive. I would have lost my popularity, but would it have been worth it? To save a life? Maybe I could have helped him turn his life around and, as a result he could have lived a satisfying, happy, full life.
I shudder and immediately put the thought away.
The image of his cold, bloodied body lying there on the floor—will it ever leave my mind? Will this suicide haunt me my whole life? In this last hour, I have learned more about life than I have in all my 16 years of living. What even is popularity in comparison to the lifeline of a precious person? Why do I care so much about my self-image? Through this past hour I’ve learned that sometimes, the biggest regrets in life are not what we do or say, but what we fail to do and say—what we lack in boldness and courage to stand up for. The truth is, I did not pity those in my school who were weeping. They deserved it. I deserved it. We all needed a desperate wake up call.
But for next time, we cannot afford to wait, to hold ourselves back from standing up for those who won’t stand up for themselves. When are we going to see that another suicide would be the waste of a life lesson we’ve already been taught once? When are we going to see that time is running out to save a life?