In 6th grade there was a little girl in my class who I’ll call Sophie. She was very quiet and kept mostly to herself, but one thing we all noticed about Sophie was that she often wore the same clothes to school the entire week. She showed up to school dirty and unkempt, she had lice, and she smelled pretty bad. Sometimes people made fun of her, but she had a group of other girls around her who were very protective of her and would verbally fight back in her defense. You didn’t want to mess with Sophie because her friends would make your life miserable if you did.
In our P.E. class, Sophie never changed into her gym clothes. The teacher would give her unsatisfactory grades for her non-compliance, but she seemed resigned to that. I figured she had a body image issue and just didn’t want to change in front of the rest of us. One day I noticed someone had erected a sheet in the girl’s locker room and Sophie and her group of friends would go change behind the sheet. Sophie was then able to participate in P.E. But her other problems remained.
I didn’t think much of it until one day I saw something that horrified me. I’m not sure how it happened, but Sophie and I were in the locker room alone together, and the sheet fell down while she was changing. I saw her naked back. I saw a burn in the shape of an iron on her back. There was no mistaking what I saw. When Sophie realized that the sheet had dropped at an inopportune time, and that I saw the burn, she started crying. “Please don’t tell anyone. Please. I’ll get in so much trouble if anyone tells.”
I was stunned. I just said, “Uh, okay. I won’t say anything.” She was begging me, what could I do? But I was haunted beyond words. Suddenly I realized, even at the age of 12, that Sophie was the victim of horrible physical abuse. I couldn’t ignore what I saw but I wasn’t sure what to do.
Later that day a couple of her friends came up to me and told me that Sophie had told them what I saw. I asked them if they knew about it and they said yes! They told me that Sophie’s mom was abusing her all the time, and neglecting her. Often she wasn’t fed or allowed to take a bath, and sometimes her mom arbitrarily kicked her out of the house to go sleep on the street. Her friends had all banded together to give her some of their lunch each day. I asked them why they didn’t tell someone, and they said that Social Services had already been there, but Sophie’s mom covered up the abuse and then abused Sophie even more for getting her in trouble. They had determined that the best thing to do was just help Sophie cope.
I was so troubled by what I knew. I started seeing Sophie in a whole new light, that of a victim. When I offered to give her some of my clothes or food she told me she couldn’t take any clothes or her mom would find out and want to know where she got them and why they were given to her. Sophie was carrying around this secret and her friends were helping her stay out of trouble the best way they knew how. I really didn’t think this was the best way to help her, but I was afraid that Sophie would just get in trouble if I interfered, plus I wasn’t sure what to do.
Then Sophie missed a week of school. I remember the teachers all acting like she was this horrible kid who just wasn’t smart and didn’t want to participate, but I and her friends knew she could be in real trouble. My imagination ran wild with thoughts of her being hurt by her mom, so I told her friends we had to tell an adult. They threatened me, and I honestly understood why. They thought telling someone would hurt Sophie more because they had seen that apparently adults had no power to help her so why make it worse.
Then Sophie was back in school, with her arm in a cast and sling. She let slip that her mom had dislocated her shoulder and broken her arm for accidentally dropping a dish on the floor that broke. I burst into tears. I just couldn’t imagine my mom hurting me like that, and I just couldn’t imagine someone having to live in fear that something like that could happen. I told my mom everything I knew about Sophie. But I begged my mom not to tell anyone because I really thought it would be worse for Sophie.
My mom knew better though. She called the school first to let them know what was going on, and then she called Social Services. I remember being in class one day when some “people” came to take Sophie away. She was freaking out, she didn’t want to leave her mom, her only source of “love and protection.” There was a big scene. After she was gone, her friends advanced on me like they were going to kill me. They all knew who had probably spilled the beans because they knew they hadn’t. I protested my innocence, frankly because I was afraid they’d beat me up. We had no idea what happened to Sophie and everyone blamed me. I was sick with worry myself.
But I knew in my heart I had done the right thing by telling, and I was secretly glad my mom had taken the step I wasn’t strong enough to take on my own.
And then one day, a few months later, the most wonderful thing happened. I was playing out in the yard during lunch when a car pulled up alongside the fence. A beautiful little girl got out of the car. She was wearing a pretty spring dress, her hair was beautiful, and there was a huge smile on her face. It was Sophie! I rushed to the fence to greet her as did many of her friends. She let us know that someone had indeed called Social Services on her and her mom. She was put into foster care and her mom was put in jail and convicted of child abuse. She was placed with a family who cleaned her up, gave her new clothes, and gave her food and proper care. She told us she had never been so happy in her life and she thanked “whoever” had told on her. A huge weight lifted off my shoulders that day.
That experience taught me never to stand idly by while someone was being hurt or taken advantage of. It isn’t always easy to know what to do to help someone, but ignoring them and their plight is wrong too.
We can’t just stand by when someone is being harmed. Get help, even if you can’t provide it on your own. Don’t harden your heart to the suffering of others. Take action. When we ignore the suffering of others we condone the actions of the perpetrators. As a society we must take action as well. True compassion is stepping in when injustice is present. Help others because one day you might need help. How would you feel if people turned a blind eye to your suffering?
I wonder what Sophie’s life is like today. I wonder what her life would have been like if no one had stepped in to help her. I wonder if she would have survived her childhood. I wonder how many other children, and even adults, are out there right now in the same situation, with friends who know of their suffering but who are too afraid to take action.
Don’t be a bystander.