We’re making a volcano tomorrow – the erupting kind. It’s our client’s last session with us and we decided to target our therapy goals with something fun. We’re sure he’ll love it, the excitable boy we’ve been seeing every week this semester. Being the genius I am, I put myself in charge of preparing everything, so I hit the supermarket after class. Baking soda, vinegar, food colouring. It took a few SOS calls to the all-knowing parental units but I safely distinguished baking soda from baking powder and left with a merry shopping bag of goodies. I even tried my best not to get ripped off. All was well.
I have plenty of buses home. One of them arrived just as I came out. As I was climbing on, I heard a mother and her young son ahead of me; she was telling him off for not listening to her. I recognised her irate and impatient tone. You see many different kinds of families on public transport but strangers like me often subconsciously file them under two broad categories: attentive parents and dismissive parents. It’s a shallow thing to judge and label someone within minutes of sharing the same space; unfortunately, it’s an intrinsic human habit. I was raised to acknowledge that it’s natural to form first impressions as long as I respected that those labels often belong unspoken. The point is, it’s not the first time I’ve encountered edgy mothers. As someone who loves children, I knew it probably wouldn’t be a pleasant ride for me. I got on anyway, admittedly more concerned about not breaking the vinegar bottle with my incurable inelegance.
I sat at the front of the bus. Somewhere at the back, the mother was still berating her son. She was easily the loudest in the quiet vehicle. In these situations, the bystanders are silent. They will be uncomfortable and they will judge and sympathise with the child. But they will not speak up, and even if they did it may not be in their place to be the lecturer, no matter how strongly they disagree with the parenting style. It’s a fine line. Let me be the first to admit that I was a bystander today.
About two minutes down the road, the mother’s voice got louder. So did the child’s; I don’t know if he was crying or protesting. Whatever it was, his mother wanted it to stop. “You’d better shut up before I slap you,” she told him roughly.
In that instant, the atmosphere inside the bus changed. Without thinking, my fingers were curling into an uneasy fist within the pocket of my hoodie. Like the rest of the passengers, I had realised that with those words, we were no longer mere bystanders.
This was no longer about disapproval. It wasn’t about listening to a mother lecture her child. This wasn’t something we could overlook; it’s something that should never be overlooked. The bystanders were cornered between two uncomfortable options: ignore or confront. Both equally nasty in different ways, but it was clear what the ‘right choice’ was.
A man spoke up immediately, before the bystander effect had even settled. He spoke so softly I actually heard the mother’s enraged reply first. All pent-up frustration erupted the moment she was told to calm down. Expletives flew. So did threats. She warned him to “shut his face before she rearranged it”.
Strangely, I think I heard what sounded like a snort from another passenger on the bus. I can’t be sure. I was facing straight ahead like the other passengers, evading the situation as best we could. I was all up in knots over the simple debate of turning my head around to see what was going on; even if I was too timid to say anything I should at least be honest about the undeniable fact that I knew something was going on. I didn’t end up making that decision. In fact, I hesitated because what followed was a loud warning to “turn your head around and stop looking at me or I’ll (insert unpleasant remark)”. I assumed this was either directed at the man who had confronted her, or to nearby passengers that had become involved.
“I’m not in the mood,” she added angrily. “I’ve got two broken ribs and three cracked ones. I’m in a hell of a lot of pain and the last thing I need is (insert more remarks).”
The bus stopped to pick up a new passenger. The driver got out of his seat and walked down the aisle. We all turned our heads to watch. Yes, I turned my head in the end. Yes, I don’t consider it my own decision; it was nothing but a response to an excuse to do so. If the driver hadn’t moved, I probably would have kept staring ahead, clenching my fist. I don’t like to admit it but it’s true.
Anything could have happened. The driver could have requested the mother and son to leave. He could have asked her to quiet down, politely or forcefully. He came back to the front of the bus pointing at a seat behind me. He’d asked the man to move seats, softly explaining, “It’s the best way.” The bus continued down the road. No one spoke, not even the mother and certainly not her son. I got off at my stop two minutes later.
I’m not retelling this story so that anyone can be harshly judged and condemned. The mother may not have carried through with her words; she may not have hit her son. She may never have. Perhaps she is truly in too much pain to be reasonable. She could have her own difficult circumstances. Perhaps she’s not nearly as excusable as I’m trying to remain. I don’t know these things. I don’t know what happened after I got off the bus, or what will happen when the mother and child get home. For five minutes, I was just a bystander.
I know it’s ethically controversial. The ‘right action’ to this scenario is blatantly obvious to those reading this right now. It is never okay to be a bystander when a child – or any person – is threatened with abuse. Stand up and defend them. It’s the ‘right thing to do’. I agree wholeheartedly. On the other hand, it’s easy for readers to say this, to confidently assert that “I would do it if I was there.” I do it too. We want to believe that we would jump right in with modern heroism, to reassure ourselves that our hearts are definitely in the right place. I’m convinced that many, many of us really do. We would not idle and ignore.
But we hesitate. It’s not so simple, so easy, so courageous. We don’t want to judge and we don’t want to be judged. Life’s many paradoxical wonders. We’re bystanders until someone else breaks free. We wait. If no one had spoken up, I want to believe that I wouldn’t have escaped the bus as quickly as I could to let the issue be ‘someone else’s problem’. If I did I’d start losing faith in myself and my values. Chances are, I wouldn’t have dismissed the situation. That’s not me. But at the same time, why can’t I see myself doing what the man did, and confronting the mother? I can be confident I wouldn’t ignore it but I can’t guarantee I would’ve acted? What kind of hypocrisy is that?
Not exactly glorifying, let’s just say that.
The question is: do those two things have to be co-dependent? If you don’t ignore, are you obliged to confront? If you don’t confront, does that mean you ignore? If so, then there was only one Samaritan on that bus; the rest were heartless strangers, including me. That’s the same judgement we mentally pass on to the mother – that she threatened her child and is therefore a terrible mother. If, unfortunately, she is, are we going to assert that she would never ever change? We can’t assume any of that. Not everything is black and white.
And that’s why this post was not made to judge. A thousand words later, we finally come to what this post is truly about: acknowledging the things we do know.
I want to thank that gentleman who spoke out, who acted without a second of hesitation; who was calm, rational, and never once swore or was impolite despite the way he was treated. You were not a bystander.
I also want to thank the bus driver, who took responsibility of his passengers’ welfare. While some may argue that he had also avoided confrontation by moving the gentleman instead of the mother, he was a symbol of open-mindedness. He compromised and was a pacifist. And when I pressed the stop button – the first interruption since that episode – he cheerfully announced the stop; bus drivers don’t usually do that here. I thanked him on my way out and he thanked me back. He controlled the situation to the best of his abilities.
The final thing I’m certain of, is that I was an unmistakeable bystander. Only one person immediately stood up for that child. Let’s be honest; I have a bag of excuses on hand to ease my discomfort. I’m a teenager and there was a busload of adults with more authority than me. Someone else had already confronted her to no avail. I wouldn’t make any difference. Frankly, I’m happy to use those excuses as a shield for now. For now.
One day, there will be no excuses left for me to use. When I’ve ‘grown up’, I’ll own up to my maturity. That could happen in the next month, the next year – there’s no guarantee. I’m on the cusp right now. That’s how long I will give myself to prepare and ‘train myself’. Then my bystander days will be over.
When this shift happens, I want to know that I will act when I should. I won’t leave it to someone else to spark my courage. Most importantly, I’ll do it on my own terms.
In other words, not because I’m obligated to. Because it’s my instinct to. Like that gentleman.
I’ll remain open-minded, because sometimes that’s all it takes. Just like the bus driver.
Easy to say, isn’t it?
Even so, I truly hope I can pull it off one day. If I don’t, then maybe I chose the wrong career path. Speech pathologists provide a health service to the community; we see the good and the bad and we take it all in stride indiscriminately. I hope that one day – hopefully in the near future – I’ll no longer be a bystander. I hope I’ll be able to stand by the sides of those ordinary people whose values came before their uncertainty. More than that, I hope I can stand by people like that mother, and her young son, because they will always need support over criticism. What’s that famous quote again? Be the change you want to see in the world? Well, I’m not aiming anywhere as high. Let’s just take it one step at a time – as long as we’re moving forward.
After all, this world is far from perfect. Fact is, chances are it will never be. Not even close.
Yet there will be moments. Moments where you help someone carry their pram down the stairs; moments where you try to placate frustrated parents; moments where you walk away shaken with strangely pleasant adrenaline. Moments where, for a few seconds, you’re happy you did the right thing.