My best friend in high school was a joiner. If there was any sort of group activity going on, he would always try and be part of it. To him, I don't think it really mattered what the activity was, as long as he was included in it some how, some way. All too often, I observed him sitting on the edge of a group, occasionally interjecting a comment meant to be amusing or witty, but instead sounding painfully contrived, screaming the subtext of "Notice me!"
As for me, I was the polar opposite. I too frequented the edges of groups, more by accident than anything else, but unlike my friend, made no attempt to join whatever activity was being planned, discussed, or reviled by the masses. As far as I was concerned, it was more fun to internally mock what kids were saying rather than trying to join in, and besides, I resented the reality that I would probably have to be the one who made the first move.
One memorable day, I took my lunch outside, found a pleasantly warm spot in the sun where I could sit, and began reading a novella which had been assigned in my sophomore English class that morning. I had just started getting into the story, and was enjoying the relative quiet of the early spring afternoon, when a group of rowdy boys arrived on the scene. They were tossing a basketball back and forth, loudly declaiming their skill both on the court and off it, and generally making such utter fools of themselves that I realized one or more teenaged girls must also be watching their antics. Sighing, I tried to ignore the racket, and returned to my story. After all, even if the young ladies in question were beautiful beyond belief, it was unlikely that they would give the basketball jocks a cold shoulder, and instead choose to sit by the blind guy and discuss the art of eating a sandwich and reading a book.
A short time later, as if to give the lie to my previous sarcastic thought, another kid sat down next to me. I was considering the possible benefits of setting the book aside and making nice by saying hello to her, when he called out a greeting to a friend walking by, and I immediately abandoned the idea. My potential lunchtime goddess had cruelly switched genders, leaving me in no mood to try and expand my admittedly minuscule circle of male friends.
I continued reading, but was only able to do so for about five minutes before being interrupted again. My unwanted companion hadn't been doing much of anything after saying hi to his friend, just sitting quietly beside me, and presumably people watching. I had just turned a page in my book when he made a peculiar sort of gurgling noise, and then started pulling on my shirt sleeve.
"Yeah?" I said, putting my book down, turning towards him, and pulling my shirt free from his tugging hand.
He made no reply, but instead grabbed my shirt again, and resumed tugging.
"Hey," I said, getting annoyed, "cool it already."
It was only then that I noticed he was having trouble breathing; gasping for each breath in fact, struggling for every sip of air that entered his lungs.
"Help!" he somehow managed to wheeze.
I stared at him in dumbfounded confusion for a second, and then my brain finally grasped what was going on. He was in pain, having some sort of medical emergency, and desperately needed my help.
What happened next took only an instant of time, but it felt like an eternity to me. The problem wasn't that I didn't know what to do, far from it. I was going to stand up, yell for help, and then explain that the boy next to me was having trouble breathing. Simple, the easiest thing in the world. Yes, any moment now I would get up and do precisely that. Except...
Except, I couldn't. Every fiber of my being rebelled at the idea. Not because I didn't want to help him, but because I knew better than to call attention to myself for any reason. Time and again, I had foolishly decided to trust kids my own age, taken that annoying first step and made overtures of friendship, only to have my trust betrayed by their childish need to show me off as a fool.
"How many fingers am I holding up?"
Adults were marginally less risky, at least as far as thoughtless juvenile pranks were concerned, but could just as easily stab me in the back with their well-meaning lack of confidence.
"Perhaps it'd be better if you just sat out this activity."
My solution, as simplistic as it was, had proven to be remarkably effective. Do not speak unless directly spoken to. When addressed, be unfailingly polite (my Southern upbringing demanded that much), but whether responding to an adult or someone your own age, offer as little of yourself as possible. Although no one traveling with a cane in a school full of sighted children could possibly be characterized as inconspicuous, when sitting in class, do your best to fade into the background. Above all, do not be tempted into ill-advised friendships by either boys or girls your own age. (Being a fairly typical adolescent male, I must admit to being somewhat unfaithful to this last rule where girls were concerned, although opportunities to violate it were depressingly rare.)
But now, here I was, minding my own business, ambushed by a kid having a seizure or whatever. I knew what I had to do, was standing up and preparing to shout for help almost as soon as I realized what was going on, but I hated him for it. Hated a poor suffering kid who could barely breathe on his own at that point.
I was almost instantly surrounded by a group of kids and teachers, even a vice principal who had been standing close by. I explained the situation, "He's having trouble breathing," and was almost instantly shunted to the edge of the group.
One teacher, herself standing on the outskirts of all the activity, and perhaps feeling the need to be doing something, anything, briefly interrogated me as to what had happened. I answered her questions as well as I could, but there really wasn't all that much to report.
"I was reading, he started having trouble breathing, and I called for help."
My own problem, the internal battle I had fought however briefly, remained unspoken. Sitting there, listening to his labored efforts to breathe in and out, I had actually considered doing nothing. What sort of useless excuse for a human being was I?
I was a clever kid, a voracious reader who had fallen in love with books the instant I had been introduced to them, but this was something completely outside my frame of reference. This almost choice, this road not taken went against everything I believed to be right, and everything I had believed about myself as well. Was I really so pissed off at the world, so self-absorbed, that I would allow someone to die, simply because I couldn't be bothered to raise a hand to help them?
"I didn't ignore him, I got help!" I would tell myself repeatedly over the next several weeks, but that moment of inactivity, and what that hesitation said about the person I was becoming, scared the shit out of me.
When I decided to participate in this season of LJ Idol, I did so with the intention of writing some sort of speculative fiction for most of the entries I was given. I've always preferred fiction, both when reading and writing, but when I read this week's particular topic, it seemed to cry out to me for something different. I briefly played with the idea of writing a fictional piece anyway, but finally acquiesced to my first impulse, and began what I planned to be a fairly lighthearted account on the origin of my LJ username, MuchTooArrogant. Obviously, although I began with a paragraph describing the friend who would eventually exclaim in disgust, "You're so damned arrogant," the story had a mind of its own, and went somewhere completely different.
As always, thanks for reading.