Late one Saturday night in my senior year of high school, I had to phone my parents from a police station.
I don’t talk about it much, but this past few weeks in Saline brought the memories up from many years ago and the story of what happened that night may have some meaning for students at Saline’s schools.
I was coming home late from my girlfriend’s house in the city and, as usual, was taking the subway a few stops to the bus station. My nose was buried in my paperback when I heard a shriek from halfway up the train. That was when I noticed there were only two other passengers in the car. They were both standing, but one had the other by the collar and his fist was raised.
You know how the world slows down in certain situations while your mind races to figure things out. A full second went by before I concluded they were not friends playing around. This time I saw the second punch and heard the racial epithet. I closed my book.
What follows was not heroic or legendary but for at least two people it was profound. I walked down the length of the car. By now, the victim was in obvious pain and bleeding. The thug had let go of him and was glancing around. Things were not working out for him. By the time I got to them, he had stopped his punching. I just stood there a moment then slowly moved between them.
I turned to look at the victim to see how he was and seconds later the train squealed into the station. The two of us moved toward the door. He was holding his nose. We stepped onto the platform and did not look back. We simply walked upstairs to the station entrance. The rest was a blur but moments later we were in a police car and then at a station looking at binders of mug shots.
It was an hour before I realized I was late getting home and had to make the call to my parents. They were upset then they were proud then my dad jumped into the car to get me. The next day the incident was in the paper and I learned the name of the victim who had been “assisted by an unidentified passenger.”
The chance to be brave sneaks up on us regardless of how old we are. Sometimes just sitting at a lunch table with the kid who was just teased is bravery enough. Sometimes telling someone on a school bus to stop teasing a kid you don’t know is bravery enough. Sometimes standing up is far harder than standing by but bravery is holding out its hand to you and waiting patiently.
That night on the train, I left behind the part of me who might have been a bystander. Last month, from my seat on the school board, I saw students standing up and stepping in to help students in need. This month, I walked with friends and strangers as they stood up and stepped in to help a community in need.
My message to students and friends is that being brave can be hard. Not being a bystander can be challenging. But the day you stand up and step in to help someone, please know that your community has your back and Saline supports you.