Sometimes think that “if only” must be the two most depressing words in the English language. How many times have you said to yourself, “If only I’d studied harder” or “If only I’d been there five minutes earlier.” If only I’d had the courage to speak up last fall, I wouldn’t be regretting it now.
Marion transferred from out of province into our class last September. She had straight dark hair stopping abruptly at chin-length and one of those porcelain complexions you see in magazines, although she never wore any makeup. Despite her naturally good looks, the better-dressed girls in our class didn’t view her as a serious contender in the fashion stakes as she always wore the same uniform of well-pressed jeans, flat shoes and a cardigan.
Marion sat opposite me in the next row and I could see by her marks that she was no slouch when it came to hitting the books. She kept pretty much to herself, although I would occasionally exchange remarks with her while we were waiting for the next class to start. I learned that her family had emigrated from Korea a few years back. Disliking the big city where they had initially settled, they opted to move to our small midwestern town and open a family business. I was intrigued with her story and once asked her to come over after school, but she replied that she had to work every day directly after school. I thought maybe she was shy or didn’t like me, so I left it at that.
The trouble all started the first morning I wore my new jacket to school. Earlier in the summer, my mom had said that I would need a new winter jacket for school. Unfortunately, my mom’s budget for clothes usually means the bargain basement at the local department store. I knew that the name-brand jackets that some of the kids wore were priced beyond our means, but I thought perhaps I could do better than bargain basement this time. I had done odd jobs all summer and saved every dime. Armed with the cash to hopefully pay the difference, I finally convinced my mom to take me to the local ski shop where there was a sale. My mom was dubious about getting a real bargain in a specialty shop, but at last she agreed. Finally, the red quilted jacket that I’d coveted for weeks in the store window was paid for and safely in my clutches.
As we left the store, my mom must have sensed some of my exuberance because she smiled at me and said, “Well, you certainly look nice in it.” Then she sighed a little, her brow furrowing up anxiously and said, “Don’t misunderstand me. You know that I want you to have nice things, but don’t forget it’s what’s inside you that counts, not the packaging.”
“Sure, Mom,” I said absently, thinking only of wearing my fashionable apparel to school the next day.
My new jacket elicited a few surprised stares from the “in” crowd at school the next morning. Even Steve, who sits ahead of me in class, turned around before math and said, “Hey, nice jacket. So, do you ski or what?” I felt myself flushing. Steve had actually spoken to me! With his streaky blond hair and confident manner, Steve positively exuded cool, or so most of the class thought. Marion looked at me from across the aisle.
“I like your jacket,” she said quietly. “I think it’s a pretty color.”
Steve was still half-turned in his seat, listening. He stared at Marion as if he was seeing her for the first time and then said loudly with a sly grin, “So, Marion, tell us. Does your father work in a grocery store or is it a Chinese laundry?” I was stunned. I could feel my face turning hot in disbelief while the rest of the class sat waiting expectantly.
Marion looked straight back at Steve and then said with a quiet dignity, “My father owns a convenience store. My sister and I help out there after school.” Our math teacher came in just then, so no one had a chance to say anything else. I couldn’t concentrate on the lesson. How could Steve have said something so intentionally, well, racist? I glanced over at Marion, but she was suddenly absorbed in her math book and didn’t look up.
After morning classes, I didn’t know what to do. I followed Marion to her locker and began awkwardly, “Listen Marion, I’m really sorry about what Steve said. He had no right to talk to you like that.”
Marion looked at me the same way she’d looked at Steve and said calmly, “Maybe you should have told Steve that.” She pulled out her lunch bag from her locker and headed down the hall, without so much as a backwards glance. I got through afternoon school somehow and went straight home.
Mom asked cheerfully, “So how was school? Was the new jacket a big hit?”
“Sure,” I muttered, but she must have noticed that I was somewhat subdued because she looked at me in a questioning way.
Then she asked, “What’s the matter? Did something happen at school today?” I put my books down on the kitchen counter and tried to explain what had happened. Mom listened while I concluded rather lamely about not speaking up on behalf of Marion because I was afraid of being picked on as well, but my argument sounded weak even to me. All my life I had loathed people who tried to put down other people or laughed at their expense. Now I felt like I belonged in that company.
I didn’t sleep very well that night. Long before dawn I was awake for good, staring at the darkness and trying to find a way through the maze of trouble that I suddenly found myself surrounded with. When morning came I knew only one thing—that I had to put things right with Marion somehow. I arrived at school early, knowing Marion was usually studying in the library before classes started. Seeing Marion working at one of the study tables, I began to walk toward her with mounting apprehension. When she looked up at me with an expressionless face, my determination became a little shaky.
All of a sudden it occurred to me that maybe I was trying to make myself feel better and not Marion. Hadn’t I tried to excuse myself to my mom saying that it wasn’t me that was directly responsible for Marion’s hurt feelings? I had a sudden, painful recollection of my social teacher saying to our class that history should teach us that if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem. My rehearsed excuses died in my throat and I could say nothing at all, except that I was sorry, because now I knew there was nothing else I could say. Marion looked at me with a mild expression, then picked up her pen and continued writing.
* * *
That was three months ago and not much has changed. All that really remains of that day in the fall is a feeling of having let Marion down. Marion keeps pretty much to herself, but then so do I these days. We don’t exchange much beyond “hi” in the classroom. I certainly don’t think much of Steve anymore, but then the same goes for a surprising number of kids in our class. I’m amazed that we didn’t see past the too-cool exterior before. Some days I think maybe there’s a chance to still put things right, although I’m not sure how. And that thought fills me with hope.