She was genuinely horrified, was the weird thing.
I mean, yeah. There are bullies at school. Anyone who thinks about it has to know. It's like abusive parents. If you think for two seconds, you realize that someone at your school of a few hundred has to have a problem with them, because they're always there. And yet, somehow, people always act like it's some big shock. I guess it's the same as death. We get to a point where we realize everyone is going to die. But we don't feel it for a long while after. So it happens, we see it happen, and then we get it. And it's terrifying. So you can react a couple ways. One way is to blame the victim: Oh no, it couldn't happen to me. JUSTIFICATION DRIVE ACTIVATED: Because I'm not stupid/mean/stuck-up enough to provoke them. Another is to not quite believe what you're hearing.
So she hadn't believed me when I told her I was being bullied. Or she hadn't done anything, or it hadn't done any good, all of which comes down to the same set of apparents from my point of view, and any question that could clarify is insulting, so there I am. The other student tells on me and we get called into her office. I'm honest, the other student exaggerates, she reacts to the worst in both our stories so I get called a tattler--I'm unpopular in that crowd, mind--and the other student and I both serve a detention. The message gets across pretty clearly: It's not quite useless, but you have to be willing to hurt a little too, and bullying/fighting/freaking without consent isn't that big a deal.
Which all adds up to some words tumbling out of my mouth before I can think to stop them, and so sincere because of that that she can't help but believe they're a true question:
"You care about that stuff?"
See line one. From what I've seen, the woman is not an amazing actor. She can smile and hide her feelings, but any of us learn that, and she uses the same smile I do. The bright, brittle smile that communicates deeper dislike than a glare.
So when she gave me a look that could have been on a poster titled "SHOCK AND HORROR, TONIGHT ONLY, NO WOMEN OR CHILDREN ALLOWED", I knew she honestly cared. Which...well, at first only surprised me, then pissed me off a little. What on earth? The rules as written allow her to give worse punishments for fighting. Why would she be so shocked that I thought she didn't care?
"Of course I care." Again, just so bald-faced honest.
I glanced at Nina, who was sitting next to me and had a layered effect that both Ms. Robin and I had ditched in favor of clarity. Outer, probably what Ms. Robin was picking up, attentive and slightly bemused; inner, mildly annoyed at me. She'd already figured out Ms. Robin cared.
I turned back to Ms. Robin and decided that, in the absence of any useful precedent telling me otherwise, I might as well be honest. "We're in high school, ma'am. We're going to fight. Every day. The only difference is that we touched each other."
"You should keep your arguments verbal."
"Because you could hurt each other."
I paused at that, trying to find some crack in her sincerity. It wasn't there. "Ms. Robin," I said softly, "we hurt each other more if we don't solve it. If we fight physically, I can tell when it ends. I've been in verbal fights that extended several years past their end because one person got over it and the other thought she was just being given the silent treatment. As long as we stay behind the threshold of long-term to permanent damage or weapons, how is this any worse?"
Had it been another day, or a different environment, Ms. Robin might have been secure enough in her worldview to give a long speech that boiled down to, "Because physical violence is always worse than verbal violence." But we had been honest with each other. She knew me to be bright, she knew me to be kind, and she knew me to be, at least for now, honest. She paused, perhaps checking me for sincerity, perhaps the sentence for truth.
Finally, Ms. Robin said something that made me respect her more than I'd ever respected a teacher at that school.
"I don't know."