Confessions of an Obsessive Witness
Originally published in Scarlet Letters, February 2002.
A couple of decades ago, I read a magazine article about a study done on imaginative people. The author commented, in surprise, that apparently one out of twenty people constantly fantasize whenever they aren't directly involved in something that requires their full attention. At any given time, she said, one in twenty people may be on the planet Mongo. I was surprised, because I was one of those citizens of Mongo; all my "waiting time" is spent lost in some world of my own mental creation. It was also a shock because I was about 12 years old, and it drove home that fact that most people did not think like I did.
Because of this propensity, I've always secretly preferred fiction to reality. Yet I did learn, one day, what happens to reality when it rolls off of a storyteller's tongue. I did learn the power of being the Witness. I learned it the year that I entered fourth grade.
I'd spent my school years up until that time on military bases in Europe ... west Germany, Austria, Denmark, northern Italy ... and the kids on the base schools were reasonably behaved. Something about all those guys with uniforms and guns tended to deter serious mayhem. I was totally unprepared for the amount of violence offered daily by the sullen children of factory workers in the mill town my father landed us in. Even more shocking to me, the bored, overworked adults who were their zookeepers turned a blind eye to the whole thing.
I immediately failed to endear myself to my classmates a week into my stay, when the teacher showed "The Sound Of Music" to the class; I eagerly pointed out the scene where Maria splashes in the fountain at Salzburg, and proclaimed loudly that I had splashed in that very fountain. (In real life, of course, it was crawling with Austrian urchins, which were somehow nowhere to be seen in the film.) Neither the teacher nor the students believed a word of it until the next day, when my parents came to school and explained that yes, we had been to Salzburg, which didn't make me any more popular.
I learned quickly to keep my head down. Even at the age of ten, these kids fought each other with a teeth-gritting intensity that terrified me, and over the slightest pretext as well. Sometimes they didn't even need a pretext. About a month into the school year, someone in one of the three fourth-grade classes declared that there was going to be a War, and that it was going to be The Boys Against The Girls. War, by their standards, consisted of repeated assaults by members of one team against the other ... punching, kicking, biting, hair pulling, one on one or in groups. I'd watched it happen before, a few kids at a time; the jaded playground monitors merely sent the wounded to the nurse's office afterwards. This time, however, the ringleaders decided that every member of the fourth grade would be drafted for this War, whether they wanted it or not.
I didn't want it. The third graders who shared our two daily recess periods were exempt ... they huddled against the brick walls and stared wide-eyed at their older classmates boiling out of the doors in a mad frenzy of violence ... and at first I huddled with them, until I was picked out and attacked, by both girls and boys. The first day, twenty kids ended up in the nurse's office. The second day, the body count was higher. I have to give it to them; the girls were just as vicious and efficient in their violence as the boys. They were, however, more changeable in their loyalties, and by the morning of the second day the teams were co-ed, as more than half the girls had defected to the boys' team. A small number of boys had also defected, but the girls' team was suffering from its inability to attract as many as they had lost.
I was bewildered by this perfidy, and I'm sure that there would have been an interesting sociological experiment in there somewhere, but at the time I was more concerned with my growing collection of bruises. It seemed that when I yelled that I was neutral, on neither team, my attacker decided I was on the opposing team, and fair game. I spent the morning recess of the second day huddled in a heap on the sharp stones the school scattered next to the windows to discourage kids from loitering there, with my bookbag over my head in order to protect my face from random kicks. I spent lunch period wondering if I could fake realistic enough symptoms of the flu to convince my mom to keep me home the next day. At the second recess, however, something unexpected happened.
As I made my way across the playground, head down and feet moving quickly, thinking that if I could just get over to the flagpole I could hang on it and they couldn't drag me away, I was jumped from behind by a boy. He was on my back and pounding me in a minute, and in my heavy coat I couldn't reach him. Panicked, I yelled, "You can't touch me! I'm neutral! I'm ... I'm ..." Then it came to me, like a small supernova going off in my mind. "I'm a reporter, and I'm doing a story on the War! You can't touch me!"
To my surprise, he got off me. "Huh?"
I thought fast and talked faster. "I'm a reporter. I'm going to do a story on the war for the school paper." (This was a bald-faced lie, as the school paper was run by an iron-fisted sixth-grade teacher who would eat her dentures before printing a story about fourth-grade playground brutality, but he bought it.) "Reporters are always neutral and you can't touch them, or they'll print bad things about you. Wanna be interviewed?" This last was delivered with as much of a breathless, enthusiastic smile as I could muster, considering that I was terrified.
But he bit. He began to brag to me about how many kids he'd slammed so far, and I let him drivel on, nodding in all the right parts. By the time he was done, other kids had drifted over, and I got four interviews that day. The next morning, I came to school armored and prepared, with my protection in place ... my father's hat, with a piece of construction paper tucked into the hatband saying "PRESS", a notebook and pen a la Harriet the Spy, and for the first time, an attitude. I'd learned two new phrases from my parents, while subtly bringing up the subject: war correspondent and combat journalist.
The change in the kids was amazing. They would take time out from beating each other up to surround me and beg to be interviewed. The big ones dragged their hapless victims over where I could see, and continued beating on them in order to show off for the media presence. Most of what they said was either bragging or complaining about "traitors", but many of them seemed to be desperate just for someone, anyone, to listen to them, to pay attention to them. I made up crazy names for the ringleaders ... The Mad Dog, The Gorilla, The Champagne Bottle. Some of the names were flattering, some insulting but in such a way that only the smartest kids could figure it out. They ate it up. And all I had to do was pretend to listen, pretend to write things down, and pretend not to feel the utter contempt I actually felt for them.
By the end of the fourth day, the battle was dying down. So many people had changed sides so many times that it was basically impossible to tell who was friend and who was enemy any more. Thank the Powers That Be that fourth graders were too dumb to figure out a way to create uniforms. I went home and wrote it all up, making it sound exciting instead of frightening and pathetic, and I read it the next day at Show And Tell. I was applauded by my classmates. The teacher seemed bemused. Apparently she had missed the entire thing.
For me, well, Light Had Dawned. I had learned something key about both myself and them. Being a writer was the thing that set me apart from the crowd, above the melee. It made me special; it protected me from injury. I know that war correspondents are not nearly so lucky in the adult world, but it sure worked in the fourth grade. In the years that followed, I was often picked on, often beaten up, but I also managed to deflect random wrath with the winning combination of a smile and a cheerful "I'm writing a book, would you like to be interviewed?" It takes a heart truly full of rage to ignore that appeal to the ego, and the need to be listened to just once.
It also set me apart from the brutal gender war that my class had started. I was on neither team, neither Girl nor Boy but Writer. I didn't understand their unquestioned assumption that of course boys and girls are natural enemies, of course men and women should be at each other's throats. To this day I have trouble understanding it. Perhaps this was the dynamic that they saw played out every day in their homes. It was certainly played out in mine, but somehow I didn't make a larger connection between Mom and Dad and men and women. I thought it was all just my parents not getting along, not a miniature representation of a larger gender war.
And, finally, it taught me that the cloak of protection that being a writer offered was sometimes paid for at the cost of one's integrity. When I wrote up nasty schoolyard thuggery as glorified heroism, I was saving my ass. I didn't question that survival instinct at the time, but in the years to come I did wonder what would have happened had I stood up and told the real story, the way I saw it, in all its grubby rottenness. Would the teachers have been moved to do something, or to slap me down for having forced it to their carefully averted attention? Would the other kids be shamed into second thoughts, or would they have exploded on me in a wave of rage as soon as the recess bell had rung? It took a decade before I was ready to face that fact that writing can, if used honestly, sometimes make you less safe instead of more so. It took longer to face the fact that this is where the real juice is, this is where the Witness ceases to be a mere reporter and becomes a sacred duty.
Words. Breath. They are both mystically associated with the natural element of the air, whose esoteric symbol is the knife. The power of words is the power to walk the knife's edge, to be lifted high into the air, to fly on the collected breath of others, to cut the truth free... and to risk falling to your death. Witness becomes Storyteller becomes Wordsmith becomes Edgewalker.
Speak the truth and watch your back.
Walk that edge.