I recently received a letter from a student named Ellen. She included two powerful writing samples along with this note:
Mr. Preller,My school is reading the bystander for a unit. Before starting it I remember laughing and thinking to myself that It was going to be dumb but I read it and I loved every single page. I really related to the character of Mary, as I have been in situations almost exactly like what she was in and your book portrayed the emotions and middle school social life exactly. One of the career choices I have been looking into is writing like you. I have enclosed a poem I write about being a bystander and a writing piece about what happened before your book. I understand that you are busy but If you have the time reading them and telling me what you think would mean the world to me. That brings me to my next question. Will they be making a movie of the Bystander? I would love to audition. If you could tell me when they are and what I need to do that would mean a lot to me.
Thank you so much and I just wanted to let you know how much I love your writting,
Here’s the poem, “The Bystander,” by Ellen. You’ll find my reply below:
I see you everyday and I still don’t know your name.
I see them tease and taunt you and your face blush ruby with shame.
I see the balls they throw and the vile things they slur.
I see you walking through the halls, your world in a vast abyss of pitch-black blur.
I see you sit alone everyday, tears brimming in your eyes.
I see them snicker and laugh at you, and then you run to the bathroom, to cry.
I hear them talk behind your back, like daggers penetrating your skin.
You try to fight the raging river but you know that they’ll always win.
I see your valiant attempts to carry your head high.
I see right through the hard efforts and I know that it’s all a lie.
I see you walk into school everyday, praying that it won’t get worse.
Only you have to bear the cross that you’re alone; I’ve never felt that curse.
You don’t deserve to be treated like this, but there’s nothing I can do.
I see you everyday and I know you want to leave but your stuck here like glue.
It’s like a scarlet letter, everybody knows.
You try to block out the screaming but the haunting yells only grow.
I hear them whisper and I know that it must hurt.
I see them walk all over you and treat you like you’re dirt.
I see your empty desk and I don’t know where you are.
I know that everything was too much and what they did will always leave a scar.
I’m almost happy that you’re gone so that you don’t have to face this prison cell.
I know it’s too late but I’m sorry that I helped make those years a living hell.
I did as much as my friends; sitting is as good as calling names.
I would do anything, ANYTHING, to take it back; to throw those years into a roaring and raging flame.
I hope the wounds will heal on your soul; bruised and broken
I’m still plagued with images of you, every night; I hope that’s enough of a token.
There’s nothing I can do now, I’m an accomplice to an unspeakable crime.
I almost helped to reap your lovely soul far before it’s time.
You’re gone to somewhere else and I can’t really help you.
You made it through this crisis and you’ll go somewhere new.
I don’t think they know what they did. They only saw what they wanted and I guess I did to.
I only saw the demon that the angels branded with a their eternal tattoo.
It took me a long time but now I know the truth; the demons were the them and the angel was you.
Dear Ellen,–Thanks again for your incredible letter. As I briefly told you before, right after receiving your letter, I needed some time to think about your poem before writing back in any detail. Your poem blew me away — so tough, and deeply felt, and powerful. It made me feel sad and a little bit worried about you. I don’t want you to be too hard on yourself, or others.–Before we get to that, I’d like to point out that, to me, the two secret stars of the book are the seemingly minor characters of Cody and Mary. Both of them undergo the greatest change. Griffin, in the role of bully, stays about the same; and Eric, as witness, mostly manages to get through it all. But Mary, well, she’s brave and terrific. She’s made mistakes in the past, hurt people, but later shows the courage to stand by her own convictions. That brave line, “I’m so tired of what other people think” — and so Mary begins to think for herself. Cody has a similar transformation toward the end, when he goes against Griffin and offers to help fix Eric’s bike. Cody decides for himself what is right and what is wrong, and acts accordingly.–No plans for a movie that I know of. I get asked that question all the time. And I mean: All. The. Time. Right now, I’m pretty thrilled with the play.–About your poem. The writing is so well done, handled with such immediacy and grace. The rhymes are never clunky or cumbersome, never get in the way of what you want to say. But I think, perhaps, you are a little too tough on the bystanders. Yes, I think most of us can reflect back on times past, regret our actions, our inactions, our failures. We can’t help but feel our share of responsibility for what happens to the people in our lives. But we’re not in control, and we don’t live those lives, and we don’t make those decisions. We can only know what we know. We can’t always recognize how it feels for someone else — it could be that we lack empathy, or compassion, or maybe our lives are too busy, too full, for us to look around and truly see.–We are flawed, imperfect beings. That’s the nature of being human.–So while the bystanders might share some responsibility — and I absolutely believe “they” do — they can never be solely to blame. We can only do the best we can, and somehow we’ve got to accept those failings, learn from them, and try to become better people moving forward.–I had a friend who committed suicide, long ago. A boy named Chris. He was a year younger than me, we were never particularly close. I went away to college, and a few months later, he was gone. And in my head and in my heart there will always, always be the thought, “If only.”–If only I did this. If only I did that. Could have, should have, would have.–I don’t know the answers to these questions, Ellen. But I do believe in asking the questions, in learning the questions — and how that might even more important than knowing the answers. Just learning the right questions.–I appreciate what you wrote. It made me think, and helped me remember.–Thank you.–I’m glad you read my “dumb” book.–JP