A character in the book I was reading earlier today spoke about a time in her youth when she had stood by, watching, as one girl beat up another one. She regretted that she hadn't had the courage to step in and break up the fight, and then she wondered why no one else had had the courage either. A large group of young people had formed a ring around the two girls to watch the fight. Nobody tried to stop it.
Now, that's horrible, and I would feel noble, perhaps, if I could write a knowledgeable post about group psychology. I could end it with some inspirational thoughts that might stick with a reader and one day inspire him or her to "do the right thing" when confronted with a situation similar to the one described in the book. That would be great.
But that isn't the way my mind works.
When I read that passage, the file retriever in my head raced down the aisle, yanked open a drawer, flipped quickly through a few manila folders, and practically skipped back to me, saying, "Remember this?" I did remember, though I hadn't thought of it in years, and I knew immediately that I wanted to write about it before I forget it again.
It happened about 1959, when I was in high school. Girls wearing full skirts and bobby socks and boys dressed in plaid shirts and jeans mingled in small groups on the lawn in front of the school, laughing, talking, enjoying the East Texas sunshine, waiting for the bell to ring and signal that the lunch break was over.
Suddenly there were shouts: "Fight! Fight!" Just like in the book, a ring of students began to form about three-deep around the two boys who were fighting. The ring actually expanded in diameter a couple of times as the crowd drew back to avoid getting in the way of a flying fist. I was not part of that ring. As chicken then as I am now, I stood back and watched from a safe distance.
Over the ruckus surrounding the fight, I heard a murmur begin, softly at first, then louder as the voices became more urgent: "Forston. FORston. FORSTON!" Mr. Forston was the vice-principal. Unlike the principal, who was usually willing to negotiate, Mr. Forston took no prisoners. I watched as he emerged from the front door and strode purposefully toward the fight.
"Uh-oh," I thought. "Those boys are going to get it."
I saw some of the watchers look over their shoulders as Mr. Forston approached. They knew he was coming, but they didn't move out of the circle, nor did they stop shouting exhortations of "Get him!" or "Hit him again!" Mr. Forston had to force his way into that ring. Only after physically pulling people apart by their shoulders was he able to get between them, and I knew from the determination on his face that there would be hell to pay.
At last he broke through. I could see the top of his head as he entered the center of that ring, then stopped and did a slow, 360-degree turn. It must have been a shock to him to discover that he was in that space all by himself.
You see, those two boys who had been fighting were both more afraid of Mr. Forston than they were angry at each other. As soon as they knew he was getting near, they simply stopped fighting, stepped back in opposite directions, and disappeared into the ring of students that had encircled them. If this event had had an umpire, that's the moment when he would have yelled, "Safe!"
I suppose I should feel a little embarrassed that reading about an issue serious enough to cause a character to feel regret and emotional distress years after it happened prompted me to tell this particular story. But, hey, humor and quick wits are also important aspects of the human condition, don't you think?