by Jessica Powers
“Anne” and I probably should have been close. Thrust together several times a week in small 3- or 4-person classes during grad school, we saw enough of each other; plus, our interests lay in the same direction–both of us were deeply interested in developing nations and in women’s issues and we were equally dogged about the way we approached our interests. Plus, she was a kind person. Intense, yes, and intense in a way that could tick some people off, but largely because they couldn’t understand the passion of a powerfully curious person who struggled sometimes to bite her tongue when all she wanted was to find out “why.” She could be like a 3-year-old–in one moment arguing with the teacher over some disputed fact, in another moment just wanting to understand and feeling frustrated that the explanation didn’t make sense, and in another moment amazingly intuitive as she grasped a concept that was still light-years ahead of the rest of us.
We should have been close. But for whatever reason, we didn’t “click.” We seemed to like each other just fine, there was just no “there” there, nothing beyond, “Hey, you seem all-right to me.” Maybe we could have hollowed out a satisfying if not particularly close friendship, as I’ve since done since becoming a mother, befriending women with whom I share precisely one common interest–our children. Maybe we would have become close over time, discovering all the ways our senses of humor, our values, and our life choices jived. But I was busy, juggling grad school and my writing career and a long-distance relationship. And I felt like I had a full plate of relationships already, more than I could handle.
And so after a year of seeing her almost daily, we were comfortably nothing more than classmates.
And then we were thrust into one of those situations where time and space are crunched and compressed and people’s worst sides inevitably emerge from the dank recesses where they normally hide. For a summer, we lived together in an empty dormitory with a dozen other students, all of us taking classes together for several hours a day, studying together, eating together, living together, socializing together. 24-7. When I was much younger, I worked as a missionary and frequently found myself in those situations. The behavior of the Christians I lived with in those settings could be frankly appalling. The difference was that at the end of the day, many (though not all) of them spent time on their knees analyzing their daily behavior. It could take some time but apologies for bad behavior were common, along with a sincere pledge to reform. That didn’t exist the summer Anne and I were next-door neighbors in a dormitory thousands of miles from our friends and families. Instead, for reasons that are still mysterious to me, most of the other students decided they didn’t like Anne. And so began a series of small steps to exclude her, and a constant series of complaints about her when she wasn’t there. While there was never a direct attack, there was plenty of eye-rolling and whispering behind her back. Sadly, even the teacher jumped into the fray, and you could see her patience wearing thinner and thinner as the summer progressed as she answered Anne’s questions.
I was ill most of that summer. The woman who essentially was the ring-leader for excluding Anne was, at the same time, my personal champion. She went out of her way to make sure I was taken care of, in a warm and devoted way that was pretty much the opposite of the response she had towards Anne. To this day, she is a close friend, and I have seen her be extremely generous to person after person. She will admit herself that as passionate and kind as she is towards the people she loves, she is equally hard-hearted towards the person she dislikes.
The relational dynamics that summer were complex. I felt like I was in a Judy Blume novel. The sides were drawn and I didn’t have a safe space to land. I didn’t join in the attack, and I frequently told people I thought they were over-reacting. But I never stood up for what was right and I closed my eyes to Anne’s personal suffering. Even when she came across the hall and knocked on my dorm room one night and mentioned her hurt that everybody had gone to dinner that night and nobody had invited her, leaving her all alone in an empty dorm and wondering where we were, I failed to be honest with her and honest with the other people in our class.
Anne turned out to be a better person than all of us. She never lashed out or became bitter. She did stop trying and started leaving on the weekends to travel around to nearby tourist locations. In class and socially, she did what was required of her but no more. And when we returned home and found ourselves in small classes again, day after day, we went on as before, almost as though the summer never happened.
But I knew the truth. I was a coward and had failed a basic moral test that has haunted me ever after.
We both went on and graduated and lost touch. She’s married and a professor now, and I’m married with a small child and a fledgling writing career with a few publications under my belt.
I think about her often. And though it doesn’t seem like it would relate, I think about her in relationship to my writing. I do not want to fail the courage test for my writing. I believe the best writers tell the truth and they are brave and unafraid in the face of possible criticism that comes their way. And I also think about her in relationship to being a mother. I do not want to fail the courage test as a mother. I want to be a truth-teller to my son, and I want to encourage his moral character so that he is brave and compassionate and willing to be alone against the crowd if need be in order to stand up for his convictions.
Yes, I hope that I learn to be courageous.