The last time I stood out was a surprise. It surprised me. It surprised everyone in my vicinity.
I was in a big lecture class on Interpersonal Violence Prevention. It was and is one of the most influential classes I have ever taken. People aren’t simple. That bit of wisdom is something I will continue to struggle with. The temptation to bubble wrap and pack people away in neat, *stackable boxes is common amongst us human beings. This class made me realize how much I gave in to that temptation. Also, I just really love bubble wrap.
Interpersonal Violence, or more specifically domestic and child abuse, are prevalent problems without solutions that are both comprehensive and widespread. My class of 90 spent the term wading upstream from the point at which abuse is treated after the fact, toward a point of primary prevention. The question we faced each day was, “how do we stop this at its source”?
The last time I stood out, we were discussing bystanders. Everyone is a bystander, whether they like it or not. Once you have witnessed an act of abuse, even if it is as you hurriedly walk past a pair of strangers, you’ve inadvertently become involved. Is abuse a private issue? When asked this question, many people candidly commented that they didn’t feel comfortable stepping in between two people in a relationship, or two people enclosed within the walls of a home.
In the midst of this discussion, a group of girls near the back of the classroom scattered from their table, shrieking. I, along with the rest of the class, turned to see one girl holding her textbook out in front of her. She seemed to be using it as a shield and weapon simultaneously. A bird had flown into the classroom.
I could see it repeatedly bouncing off the glass of the half-open window it had accidentally entered through. The individual with her book held at arm’s length was the closest person within 15 feet of the window, and her attempts to shew the bird out were obviously ineffective. The rest of her table mates shrank back. From the looks on their faces, they were anticipating an army of the bird’s cousins to swoop in and dive bomb them in a college themed remake of Hitchcock’s The Birds.
“You’ve got to…” I started to say. No one was listening and no one, not even my professor, was moving. In fact, the only people in the room who had moved at all from their table were the nervous girls standing back from the scene, and Flapper Girl. I stood up too, and at first, no one noticed my movement. As I walked forward, the chatter that had accompanied the bird’s entrance began to quiet.
Have you ever seen the movie Babe? It’s a beautiful story, and if you haven’t watched it, I highly recommend it. At the climax of the movie, Babe, your standard, everyday pig, expertly herds a bunch of sheep in front of a stadium of onlookers. When I write it out like that, I agree that it sounds a few miles north of strange. But even without context, I am sure you can imagine the disbelieving, slightly confused silence of a group of people holding their breath.
I felt like Babe as I headed toward Flapper Girl. She was still flapping uselessly as I stepped up to the desk, but stopped immediately when I entered her line of sight. The bird had taken perch on a higher windowsill, it’s chest expanding and collapsing rapidly. I slowly moved both my hands toward it. It’s breathing also slowed as it watched me with one black eye. It’s head cocked up, its beak in the air, as my hands neared it. It held rigidly still. I quickly wrapped my fingers around its body, put my hands out the open window, and tossed my new friend into the air. The bird opened its wings as my fingers released, and sped away from what must have been a harrowing experience.
As Babe (the pig) shuts the gate on the sheep he has herded into a pen, the latch clicks audibly. That click is followed by a standing ovation from the bewildered crowd of watchers. I turned away from the window to a moment of open mouths, and then a rowdy, laughing classroom of my peers clapping. It wasn’t a standing ovation, but I was pleasantly surprised by the affirmation. I gave a theatrically low bow.
You have to understand that from the moment of my standing to the moment of applause, no more than 30 seconds could have passed. What I had done was automatic for me, a fact I revealed to my instructor as he questioned me in front of the class. He expertly turned the interaction into an example of bystander involvement.
And why am I an Expert Bird Wrangler? I’ve was raised in the Pacific Northwest. I have lived almost exclusively in forests. Birds fly into the house several times a summer when doors and windows remain open. This knowledge made me an “enlightened bystander”. I knew that wild birds would often relax with a firm but gentle grip wrapped around their wings. I knew their bones were delicate and hollow, and that a heavy blow or a clenching grip could break them, inducing a bird to panic and peck. I knew that an uninjured bird could handle a toss, and that said toss would cause them to instinctively open their wings for flight.
I’m gonna get really real here and say that being the standout, the center of attention, is something I crave. I’m a born performer, and being in front of a crowd, doing my thaaang, brings me adrenaline-rushing-joy. But what I did in this instance was an accidental exposure that I had not anticipated, and anyone could have done the same with less experience than I had.
That’s exactly what being a bystander is. If no one has told you that you are a bystander, I am now. I’ve included a link to a short video*** I watched recently on domestic abuse. It is the perfect example of what we lose when we choose to ignore what we see and hear and feel at the sight and sound of abuse. I don’t think it’s a private matter. However, I have also never witnessed something that has given me pause. I bet it is a lot scarier and and more confusing than I would expect.
I just hope I step in to make sure the bird’s bones aren’t broken.
That is all.
*I would like to note that according to my computer, “stackable” is not a word. I would also like to note that I don’t give a half deflated **whoopy cushion.
**Supposedly “whoopy” is also not a word.