|Some teens are bullied and ridiculed by their peers. (Photo: Guardian)|
She kept her head down on the local streets and I never saw her stop to chat with anyone. She didn't smile at me or say hello when she passed the way people usually did in my town.
Instead her face was a mask of complete indifference. She stared straight ahead and passed by wordlessly. It was the same every time I saw her.
Her name was Ella. She must have been 16. Later that year she stopped going to school and I barely saw her again, but by that time she had already become unforgettable to me. Not for anything she had said or done but for the things that happened to her.
Somewhere in her past her parents had been travelers. At the time no one called them travelers though, preferring to call them gypsies, or worse. Especially the other girls in school, especially between classes, when the teachers weren't around to keep order and adolescent cruelty could flourish unchecked.
I don't know how they learned about her past, or why they felt entitled to taunt her about it. I just know that they did and they were pitiless.
One girl, called Sarah, was particularly cruel I remember. Her parents were upper middle class, her father worked for the Irish government, and if there was a pinnacle to our social register she was at or very near its top.
Some queens requires a peasant or they will not know they're queen, I suppose. In the past I had spoken, or more precisely I had listened to Sarah talk to my friend Michael about her anxieties concerning her dating life. Michael, being gay, was the authority on women's feelings, apparently.
She would unburden herself to him without hesitation, finding his interest in her entanglements very attractive, and of course knowing that he was of no real consequence either way.
I was, if I'm honest, never particularly fond of Sarah. A instinct warned me off her, one that was being repeatedly confirmed.
Teenagers are famously self-absorbed, but Sarah was turning her life into a grand opera with herself as the star. She was convinced that no one had ever felt what she was feeling, that no one had experienced the shocks and setbacks she did.
Michael's interest in her, which was secretly just an interest in her social circle, did her no good. It encouraged her to imagine that there was a deeper significance to her daily frustrations.
Already narcissistic, his interest in her was a mirror in which she saw her own stature balloon. But he had simply set out to meet her cousin, who he had his eye on, and along the way he had encouraged a monster.
Love for oneself, quipped Oscar Wilde, is the beginning of a lifelong romance. For Sarah it was the start of a pathology. It wasn't enough for her to find herself endlessly fascinating, the world would have to too. Soon she was elbowing her way into all our lives, always crafting new stages to stand on as we looked on appalled.
Ella had nothing to do with this. She was quiet and aloof and, as I recall, a bit sad. You could tell she just wanted to get through her day and be on her way somewhere. She didn't give or take offense. She wanted to be left alone.
That wasn't going to happen though. She was too obvious a prop for our grand diva to play with. It was unthinkable that she'd be overlooked in the growing reign of terror that was being unleashed.
It started off with little gestures like Sarah holding her nose or making faces as Ella passed, but within weeks she was trashing her openly in a game where she knew she held the winning cards.
It eventually came to head on the way to class one October morning. Ella was in the corridor and Sarah was in her way.
“You're not fit to eat with pigs,” Sarah told her. Then she smiled the satisfied smile of an aristocrat dismissing a beggar.
How crass she was, how vicious. About 10 of us watched it happen in shocked silence. Her cruelty took our breath away.
I have rarely felt so angry with another human being. I was startled by the intensity of my dislike. Still speechless, I watched Ella's face crumple at the insult and as she turned and walked away without a word.
I should have followed her. I should have apologized on my own behalf. I should have done something, but the shock and the damage that bullies do often surpass just their target, victimizing everyone in their wake, sometimes for years.
Sarah really expected us to pat her on the back, so she was stunned when she discovered she had become a pariah herself. Ella left the school that hour and she never returned.
I saw her once about four years later on my way to college. She is the passenger seat of a car stopped in traffic. She caught my stare and her face became the mask of complete indifference I remembered. Then she stared straight ahead and the car passed by.