I bend over and finger my key chain, determined to escape into the world of Little Miss Piggy and Mini Kermit the Frog. I try to ignore the teasing around me. I try to ignore Andrea, who is seated across from me, arms over her head, yelling at them to stop. I try to ignore the bus driver, who isn’t paying attention at all. The best thing I can do is ignore, I think. But something makes my eyes turn upward, my ears tune into the cruel words. Andrea is wearing a red coat today. Her eyes roll around inside her huge glasses. She’s an autistic girl. And that automatically makes her a magnet for bullying. Henry, a boy in the back, yells names at Andrea. More kids try to grab her hat and jewelry. Her backpack is in the middle of the aisle. Somebody grabbed it and threw it there. That’s where it’s staying for now.
I can see some kids are glad they’re not getting picked on. Like Sean, who can’t keep a friend for more than a week. Some kids tease him behind his back. Others simply ignore him, sending an anti-Sean vibe and signaling to everyone, even the youngest kids, that he’s not cool to be around. So of course he is laughing his head off as Lucas, sitting behind Andrea, pops up and yells, “Freak! Freak! Freak!” over and over in her ear.
“Stop it!” she screams. No one listens. Somebody flashes his middle finger up at her. I gasp. Everybody knows what that is. It’s terrible and mean. Andrea is in a hostile atmosphere. Kids go out of their way in an exaggerated fashion to avoid touching her.
When she gets off at her stop, everyone forgets her. Like me.
When I get off, I run to my house. My room is so quiet, the walls a peaceful shade of blue. I forget that Andrea probably isn’t very happy right now, and I forget that Sam and Lucas are home safe, with no consequences.
* * *
The next day, I am tense as I climb on the bus. The moment Andrea gets on, she says, “Hi, guys!” in a piercing voice and waves.
Sam screams, “Look out, here comes Andrea!”
Somebody sticks a kick-me sign on her back as she walks past. When she sits down, someone else grabs her hat and throws it out the window.
In a clear, strong voice, I hear someone say, “Mr. Dave, stop the bus.”
Everybody’s eyes turn. Melissa, a fifth-grader, rises up. The driver slams on the brakes. Calmly, Melissa walks down the aisle, quietly gets off the bus, picks up the hat from the street, climbs back on, and returns it to Andrea.
Then she faces the bullies. “You need to leave Andrea alone. Period!” Her words are loud. Melissa takes Andrea’s arm. “Come here, Andrea,” she says. Andrea gets up. Melissa wraps her arm around her. “Look,” she demands. All of us look. The bus is silent. The driver is staring in the rearview mirror. “This girl deserves respect,” Melissa tells them. “All of you ganging up on her at once is cowardly. It’s malicious. It’s cruel.” Everybody nods. Even Sam.
“If I ever see anything like this again,” she says to Sam, Lucas, Richard, and George, who are the leaders of the bullying, “you’ll have me to answer to.” She doesn’t say this violently, but in a quiet voice. “And all of you.” She motions to us. “Did you ever once stand up for her?”
We shake our heads.
“That goes for you, too. All of you say sorry to her.”
“Sorry,” we all chorus.
“It doesn’t make any sense to bully people who are afraid of you like she is. I know you think that mercy is for weak people. Think again.” She lets go of Andrea. Then Andrea starts to clap.
And then Rochelle, in the last seat, joins in timidly. Her seat partner, Abby, starts in. It’s like one of those waves you do at baseball games. Everybody starts clapping, the ripple going through the whole bus. Everybody claps, even the bullies. Then Rochelle stands. And everyone stands. It’s a standing ovation. Everybody gets to their feet gracefully at the same time and claps. Boys whoop and holler and whistle. Lucas even takes off his baseball cap. The bus driver gets to his feet and claps, too. I’m clapping my hands so hard they’re about to fall off, so I run up the aisle and throw my arms around Melissa, who pulls me to her, and we’re giggling and then laughing as we bounce up and down, hands on each other’s shoulders. Then everybody’s up out of their seats and hugging Melissa, and hugging each other. Everyone’s laughing, light shining from their faces. If this was a movie, there would be happy, up-and-down light fiddle music playing right now. Even the fiddler would be doing a tippy-toe dance and rhythmically making the bow fly up and down. Then Rochelle hugs Andrea. Kids are high-fiving Sam and the other boys. And then we all try to hug Melissa and Andrea at once. They’re squashed in the middle and we’re crowding around them.
All of a sudden I realize how backwards we had been thinking. Brave to us was riding a horse through a deep dark woods to rescue a treasure. Brave was risking your life to save princesses from wicked stepmothers. Now I know there is a kind of brave that involves the possibility of a hundred children rising against you. It involves the risk of not being safe from the bullies anymore. It involves, most importantly, you saying one little sentence that could change something forever.