By: Sarah Bannan, Author
I occupied a funny place in my high school. A place in between. In the middle. I wasn’t wildly popular, but I had friends—plenty of them. We weren’t too nerdy, we weren’t too cool. In essence we didn’t present a threat, nor did we present an easy opportunity to tease. Not usually, anyway. I’ve read that this is the healthiest, safest place to be in the social hieirarchies of our teenage years. I avoided the anxiety that comes with being on the top of the social food ladder. I avoided the pain and grief that comes with being a social outcast. I was not bullied. I did not bully.
But I watched. I stood by. I did nothing to help.
I had a friend I was close to during middle school. Let’s call her Anna. She, and another friend – let’s call her Susan – we were like the three amigos. For a time. We did everything together when we were thirteen, fourteen. Susan and Anna had known each other since they were babies. Their relationship was, I can see in retrospect, a little fraught. They were competitive. Jealous. I was helpful because I was new. I could be something to both of them.
When we reached our sophomore year of high school, things changed. We were 15 and Anna became friendly with some really popular kids. Her demeanor changed towards me and Susan. She didn’t want us around. Me, it seemed, especially. She could be cruel sometimes – ignoring me in the halls, making digs about my hair or my clothes or my obsessive interest in my grades – but mostly she just dropped me.
Susan found other friends, too, but we remained close all the same. I had new friends and sometimes we mixed and sometimes we didn’t. It was no big deal.
Over time, Anna’s popularity seemed to soar. She became student council president, was voted into class favourites. She had a boyfriend who was a senior. He was a year older than us and was cool and funny and universally liked. Everything was great for her, but I had no role in her life. I hated her a little bit, sometimes, but mostly I just moved on.
(Sarah Bannan (middle) and friends at graduation.)
Two years later, Anna did something stupid. She and her boyfriend played a prank. The prank, unfortunately, was serious. The police were involved. The prank, in another unfortunate detail, was played on the brother of a very popular girl in our class. It happened over the summer and everybody talked about it. Everybody had a theory. Everybody thought she should move, be expelled, punished. When we got back to school, she was no longer on the student council and her popular friends were nowhere to be seen.
I did nothing to help. I sat with my friends and listened to them gossip; I watched people sneer at Anna in the halls; I watched people cold-shoulder her; I listened to the cruel things that people said to her face and behind her back. I watched her try to keep her head down and finish the year, but we made it almost impossible.
At the time, I thought I was a decent enough friend to her. In private, I met her and told her I understood and that I felt for her. But, in public? At school? There, I did nothing. I sat and I watched and I laughed along at the right points and nodded at the correct moments and when I couldn’t take it any more: I just turned my head. Looked the other way. I was a bystander.
It’s a problem that continues into adulthood. Standing by, doing nothing. There’s a famous study that was undertaken in the 1960s: when people watch a dangerous situation unfold, they take longer to help if there are a lot of people around. “There are others here – if there was something to do, an action to take, wouldn’t the person next to me be doing something? Or the person next to them? It couldn’t be up to just me. Or us.”
WEIGHTLESS is the story of a town, a school, a community, of bystanders. A group that stands back and watches a dangerous situation unfold. I chose the voice – the first person plural – because I wanted to emphasise the complexities of communal responsibility. Communal guilt. Communal shame. I wanted the reader to see the bystander as a part of the problem – and a big one at that. The “we” voice stands back and watches, but it also fuels something: gossip, rumour, the chatter that can see harmless in isolation, but tragic in its totality. And “we” are powerful in another sense, too. By doing nothing, “we” are saying that the cruelty inflicted is okay. There’s nothing to see here. Nothing to stop. No one to blame.