- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 15, 2006

“French was interesting today,” Betsy said. “How so?” I asked. As usual, she was helping me prepare dinner — she’s the only one of my four children who always answers when I call for an extra set of hands in the kitchen.

She grabbed a knife and an onion and sidled up to the cutting board. “Well, this kid made a really rude comment to my friend, so I sort of went off on him.”

“What did he say?” I figured it had to be pretty bad.

“He pointed to her stomach and said, ‘Put those rolls away. It’s not time for dinner.’”

That was bad. Comments about a teen girl’s physical flaws are unwelcome, at best.

“So what do you mean, you ‘went off on him’?” I had visions of Betsy pummeling this boy with an English-to-French dictionary and yelling “fait taire.”

“I stood up and said, ‘That was a horrible thing to say to a girl. You might think you’re funny, but nobody else does. Everyone else thinks you’re rude and mean.’”

“Wow,” I said. I didn’t know whether to be impressed or afraid, but I was glad I wasn’t the onion she was chopping. Recalling the episode caused her to dice furiously.

I wondered if Betsy’s tirade had drawn a response. “What did everyone else do?”

“Nothing,” she said, “but later, in the cafeteria, some kids said that was the best French class ever.”

This isn’t the first time Betsy has spoken up for someone. Back in middle school, several classmates prided themselves on their ability to bring a particular teacher to tears by making nasty comments and refusing to cooperate with her. Betsy lamented the cruelty she witnessed (in religion class, no less — the irony adding to the offensive behavior) but she didn’t know how to help or what to do.

On the one hand, Betsy was bothered by the bullying she saw — enough to report it to me and consider whether she could intervene.

On the other hand, a 13-year-old girl who stands up and shames her peers for teasing a teacher is a hopeless geek. She was savvy enough to appreciate what this tactic would say about her.

Still, that’s the approach I encouraged her to take. “Look,” I said, “you can sit there and watch those kids, and you can think it’s terrible, but if you don’t speak up, you’re no better than they are.”

She agreed with my logic, but that didn’t mean she was convinced.

Then one day she couldn’t sit still for it any longer. She stood up and said, “I can’t believe how disrespectful and rude you guys are. This is an adult, and it is really inappropriate to tease her and talk back.”

Even the teacher was shocked.

Just as she figured, taking a stand solidified her place in the Geek Hall of Fame. Not only was she a notorious teacher’s pet, she was a teacher’s pet whose motives were pure — she wasn’t just sucking up to get a good grade.

Not that it did any good, and it sure didn’t win her any admirers among the students in her class.

Ironically, it was Betsy’s one and only foray into unprincipled behavior that (briefly) got her noticed by the “cool crowd.” Looking to protect her “A” average in English, she asked a friend for an answer on a homework assignment, only to be charged with cheating. (The bad news was she was cheating. The good news? She was so inexperienced at it, she did it right in front of the teacher.)

Suddenly, Betsy wasn’t perceived as the goody-two-shoes who had reprimanded her peers for taunting an adult. She was just a flawed middle schooler taking a short cut to get her homework done — no better than anyone else.

Her reward? A spike in social status and a place at the lunch table with the popular people.

Her popular phase didn’t last long, though. She never felt comfortable flipping her hair and talking about “hot guys,” and her career as a homework cheater ceased after that one unsuccessful episode. She obviously wasn’t the “real deal” as far as the cool group was concerned.

More than that, Betsy understood the disappointing reality that her weakest moment — an act of unprincipled convenience — gained her more admiration than speaking out for the just treatment of another person.

It simply didn’t seem right.

Of course, popularity is fleeting anyway, and in Betsy’s case, her obvious remorse about cheating made it clear she wasn’t as cool as the popular group thought she was.

By the time she reached high school, her reputation as a geek had resurfaced — and preceded her — but Betsy didn’t mind. She discovered it feels good to do the right thing, such as speak up when someone gets hurt at the hands of a bully, even if her tirades don’t change things much.

Then again, standing up in French class to defend her friend somehow came across as pretty cool, even to the popular crowd.

Of course, what’s important is that Betsy speaks up no matter what, even when nobody thinks it’s cool but her.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 18 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybeth hicks.com) or send e-mail to marybeth. hicks@comcast.net.

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