I was in junior high school, and I did not like myself very much. I was fat, I had only two outfits to wear to school that year, and I was in a new school, with really no friends. Add to that he abuse I suffered at home, both mental and physical, and you have a portrait of a very unhappy girl, but it still does not excuse what I did. More to the point, it does not excuse what I didn’t do when I could have done the right thing.
I saw the young black boy walking down the road toward where I got on the school bus, walking next to a neighbor I had my whole life. Mr. Mercer was my neighbor, and I had lived near him, his wife, and their small farm my entire life. Race was a dividing factor, so he and his wife kept themselves apart from their white neighbors, but my mother sometimes stopped the car on the way home from getting me at school, if she saw Mrs. Mercer in the yard, to visit from inside the car. They were nice, kind people. They were hardworking people. I liked them as a kid, and I remember them with fondness. They sold their livestock and produce at Detroit’s huge Eastern Market; the granddaddy of all the farmer’s markets in Michigan began there.
Mr. Mercer introduced me to the boy, who was probably the same age as me, about 12 years old. He was slight, somewhat sullen. Scared, I thought, more than mad. He was used to city life, and now he was living in the real country, among geese, chickens, cows, and pigs.
“This is Bobby,” he said, “and he’s from the city. We are going to keep him, if everything works out. He’s going to school with you today.” I don’t remember what I said to that. I may have just nodded. I hope I said hello to the boy, but as lacking in confidence as I was then, I am not sure if I did.
I was aware of two things, simultaneously: The sound of the oncoming yellow school bus, and my dread at what would happen when we got on the school bus. I knew something awful was going to happen. In those days, there may have been one or two black kids attending Capac Junior/Senior High School, but there were none on my bus. Hispanic kids were plentiful, and many of them were popular, though they sometimes bore the torment of racial slurs. I knew first-hand what terrors awaited a kid who was different.
The air compressing the brakes of the bus broke into my thoughts. Mr. Mercer, always the gentleman, offered me his hand to steady me as I went up the bus steps. My face must have been fully red. I was afraid of what might be said to Bobby, but I was more afraid of how these kids, some from hard homes like mine, would say to associate me with this young black boy. We got on at the same stop. I am ashamed now in recollecting how fearful I was, what a coward I was. I was ashamed then, but I could not get myself to do the right thing.
I behaved as if I did not see Bobby or anyone else. I waited for the taunts, the slurs toward me, the cat-calls and whistles that usually accompanied my arrival on the bus. I waited for the first racist remarks. None were forthcoming. Not a kid on the bus said a word. It was as silent as if not a single soul was on the bus. It was worse than someone saying something might have been because it was usually cacophonous.
Bobby lasted three days, and in that three days, I never tried to befriend him, and I should have. If anyone knew what it was like to be an outcast, it was me, but I was too much afraid to be the one who was better than that. Maybe that’s why I try to be that now, but it does not make up for what I didn’t do when confronted with a hard moral choice. I failed, just as badly as all the other kids on that bus failed, but I hold myself more accountable than the others.
My mother was Catholic before she married my father, and Catholics know about sins in all of their infinite possibilities. They know about the idea of committing sins, and of the second kind, which we don’t hear as much about, and that is sins of omission. I committed a sin of omission that day. I have never told this story before, because my behavior is so shameful to me. I knew better. Children know sin when they see it. I spent several years avoiding looking in Mr. Mercer’s eyes. When I finally asked him a decade later what had happened to Bobby, he said, “he wanted to go back to the city. He wasn’t happy here in the country, so Roberta and I took him back.” I know why he wasn’t happy. I had a chance to be better than my circumstances, and I didn’t do anything. That was my sin. I have lived with that sin for almost fifty years now. It is as painful now as it was then. I hope, whatever happened to Bobby, he has forgiven me because I have never forgiven myself.