The Bystander Effect

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Photo by Karl Peterson

Once when I was 14 years old, I was home alone on a warm sunny day, and I was practicing my golf swing in my front yard. I had my pitching wedge and plastic balls and was going to town. My house sat on an extra-wide street in the middle of a neighborhood frequented by ice cream trucks and butterflies. I knew a few of my neighbors: Edith and Al, who were both in their 80’s and maintained lovely pink, white, and red flowers in the front yard, lived next door; Paul and Sue, who tried unsuccessfully to get pregnant for ten years, lived across the street; Paul, Velta, Jenny, and Paul Jr., masters of the loud late-night argument, lived on the other side of me; a couple houses down the street was single mom Lisa with her 8-year-old demon twins Andrew and Alex; and across the street and over one house was Ray and Patricia who were both in their 70s, retired and spent their days either driving their Winnebago or working on it. On this particular day, Ray was on a little stepstool outside his immaculate Winnebago’s passenger door doing some work. I didn’t have a direct view of him from where I was practicing, but I could kind of see him through his windshield and side window.

My practice was interrupted by a sharp scream coming from Ray. I looked over and the stepstool he was on was lying on its side, barely visible in front of the vehicle. I froze. It looked like he was caught between something in the window, but I wasn’t sure what. He kept screaming, “Oh my God! Please help! Sweet Jesus!” I didn’t move. The screams continued for another five seconds before I finally shook myself free from the trance. However, in a moment that has haunted me for 33 years, I didn’t run to help Ray. I ran inside my house. My dining room windows were open because it was summer and hot and I could still hear Ray’s pained screams. I closed my windows. My head was telling me to go help, but I didn’t. Like a coward, I literally hid in my kitchen, trying to keep from hearing. “Oh God! Help me! Help! Help!” This was a failure of character on my part. After two minutes (that was agony for both of us), the screaming stopped. I poked my head up from where I was sitting on the floor and looked across the street to see Ray walking back into his house holding his arm, which looked to be bent at an unnatural angle. I saw my golf club lying flat on the grass.

People say that character is revealed in small moments. I failed. I wanted a rewind button, so I could take it back to the first moment I heard Ray shout. I wanted to have run over there to save him. I wanted to have helped him down from his predicament. I wanted to have kept him from breaking his own arm in order to be released from the window. I wanted to help. I wanted to be better than I was. But I didn’t do any of that. I ran away.

I sat in my kitchen for almost an hour replaying what had happened. After 20 minutes, a car pulled up to Ray’s house, and a grown woman got out and went inside the house while I watched from the kitchen. Shortly after, she walked Ray out, guiding him with her arm around his waist as he cradled his bad arm, which was wrapped in a towel, into her car. They drove away, presumably to the hospital.  It may have been my imagination, but I think she looked directly at me as she climbed into the driver’s seat.

I have had to live with this moral failure ever since this happened, and I deserve every single bit of mental anguish I have administered to myself. I never told anyone about this episode until yesterday when a co-worker and I were talking about character. We’re both teachers, and since school shootings happen weekly now, we were talking about what we’d do. We both expressed desire that we hoped we were the type of people who would try to take out the shooter, but as he said, “You never know how you’ll react in a crisis.” I haven’t thought of Ray in a long time, but the entire story came back to me immediately. I told him. He was so embarrassed for me and probably disappointed, but nothing compared to how I felt about myself.

When I was 14, I was fairly introspective, and I knew I had failed a karmic test that summer day. It is true that people don’t know how they’ll react in a crisis, but I never thought I’d be the type of person who would fail so miserably. Ever since then, I have tried to respond bravely when faced with an emergency, and I have succeeded for the most part. When I was 27, I was the first person on the scene at a car wreck when an elderly woman got confused and mistook the accelerator for the brake and drove into a building at 100 MPH. I ran right over and tried to help out. There was absolutely no hesitation on my part, but she was already dead. Another time, I had to perform the Heimlich on a stranger at a restaurant. It was successful. Other times when I’m at school, I am on scene immediately when trouble breaks out.

To be honest, I just feel like I’m trying to get my crisis response trained so when there’s an active shooter at my school, I don’t fail my students. That’s a sentence I wish I didn’t have to write, but it’s the reality of the world.

Nothing I do today or yesterday or months ago or even tomorrow justifies my failure to help Ray.  I can try to balance the good vs. bad scales, but my guilt remains.

Ben Jatos is a husband, father, and high school English teacher. His work has been published in Slice Magazine #20, Memoir Mixtapes, and Moonchild Magazine. 

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