On Standing Up (Even When It Feels Like A Heart Attack)

It’s hard to read the news or log on to social media these days without being inundated by stories of youth speaking out, rising up, and otherwise declaring “enough is enough” in the face of dysfunctional politics, unsafe schools, institutionalized injustice, and other manifestations of a broken society. Now more than ever before, students have numerous platforms to amplify and spread their message and thank goodness for that. The “adults” are really making a mess of things around here.

As I anticipate the release of First Girl, my second YA novel for Harmony Ink Press, I can’t help but note the parallels between the near-future dystopia I dreamt up years ago, and the grim realities we now face. Increasingly chaotic weather patterns, militant political factions and hate groups sheltering under banners of religion and freedom of expression, not to mention the lethally misinterpreted “right to bear arms”. When the opportunity to do a blog tour for First Girl presented itself, I scoured my brain for some pithy words on the creative process, my favorite books, etc., but instead my head was populated by thoughts about what it means to speak up, even when larger, scarier, better-armed forces threaten to squash you like a turtle on an Everglades byway.

It seems an opportune time for all of us grown-ups to ask ourselves what we’re standing for at present, and perhaps even reflect upon those moments in our youths when we put ourselves between a wrong and the surefire victim of that wrong and refused to budge. I think about the times when a friend was being bullied or an authority figure imposing some unjust sanction and how it felt to speak up. Wobbly knees, shaking voice, sweaty palms, and a deep facial flush were all part of the equation, as well as the certainty that I was about to get my ass kicked into Super Bowl Sunday. But I also remember that I felt lighter afterwards. Freer. I’d done the thing and survived and could sleep the sleep of the just. Resistance isn’t always pretty, but it doesn’t have to be. Here is one of my favorite scenes of Gabi confronting her nemesis, Bradley Fiske when partnered with him during a training exercise in the high school gym:

“Come on, reject,” Bradley sneered. “We don’t have all day.” His face was burgundy from exertion and sweat made the sparse hairs he cultivated on his chin glisten. As dulled as Gabi’s senses were, his scent still made her gag. He grabbed her arm as soon as she stepped onto the mat and yanked her over his foot to send her sprawling. “Oh, man, this is going to be fun,” he crowed, dragging her back to her feet with a sharp tug at the collar of her uniform. His hand darted out, grabbed the front of her uniform and wrenched her towards him. Just as she was about to collide into his chest, he sidestepped and held his arm out straight so that it caught the front of her neck and knocked her onto her back. The air whooshed out of Gabi’s lungs, and she floated up towards the high ceiling for a few heavenly seconds. Bradley grabbed Gabi’s wrist and jerked her upwards so that she swayed on her feet. Her vision cleared just in time to see Coach Helmsgerth disappear around one of the goal posts. Gabi opened her mouth to call for help, but the pitiful squeak that emerged never reached the coach’s ears. “C’mon, reject, give it your best shot,” Bradley taunted, holding his fists in front of his face and dancing from foot to foot.

“Are…are we supposed to be fighting?” Gabi stuttered. “I thought we were just doing take downs and holds?” He thrust his open palms at Gabi’s chest, sending her onto her back again.

“They’re called take downs, aren’t they?” The textured nylon of the mat abraded Gabi’s elbows, back, and tailbone as she tried to break her fall, then roughed across her again as Bradley hauled her back to her feet. “Okay, now you,” he said, stepping towards her and spreading his arms wide in mock surrender. “Take me down, reject.” Gabi bristled with the desire to do just that. It had never occurred to her to be angry at Bradley and his gang. It was just nature. The strong culling the weak. But Gabi had learned that she wasn’t weak, or maybe that she wasn’t only weak. There was a stubborn strength inside of her that couldn’t be touched by anyone, not even Bradley Fiske.

Despite all of his bluster, Gabi knew that Bradley’s brawn only went as deep as his overdeveloped muscles. He was afraid all the time. The stink that hung around him wasn’t just unwashed hair and dirty socks. It was fear. If he had been the one to witness all that she had on D Wing, he would have curled up like a leaf in a flame and burned to a trembling pile of ash. When Bradley moved to sting her with another slap, Gabi deflected his hand. It was an awkward gesture, halting and poorly aimed so that his wrist bone bruised hers painfully, but his slap didn’t land. From the look on Bradley’s face, you’d think Gabi had sprouted a tail. “What the--?” he snarled. Gabi’s elation was short-lived as Bradley bent over and rammed his shoulder into her middle so that both of them landed in a tangled heap on the mat. In a quick series of maneuvers, he pinned Gabi face down and yanked her arms behind her back. His foul breath steamed in her ear as the weight of his body squeezed the air out of her. Gabi reared her head up with as much force as she could manage, and felt the crunch of Bradley’s nose against the back of her skull.

“I’m bleeding!” Bradley yelped. Gabi could smell the tang of his blood, feel it dribbling onto the back of her neck where her skin was exposed by her messy ponytail. He winched her arms tighter and pressed his mouth close to her ear. “You will pay for that, reject,” he spat. “I am going to make you pay, do you hear me?” He flipped her over with a deft motion, pinned her torso, and jammed his nose up against hers. He was so close that all she could see was the bloodshot rage in one unblinking eye. The blood from his nostrils spattered dangerously close to her mouth.

“You are nothing,” Bradley taunted. “Nobody cares about you. Nobody wants you, not even your own mother. She threw you out like trash, and that’s all you’ll ever be.” A whistle blast screeched above them, and as Bradley pulled his head back, Gabi saw Helmsgerth’s enormous sneakers planted beside their heads.

“Alright, lovebirds, break it up.” Bradley scrambled to his feet. “Whose blood is that?” Helmsgerth growled, gripping Bradley by the jaw and examining his face through slitted eyes. Bradley was mute, but the answer was obvious from the beet-like swelling of his nose and blood gushing over his lips. I gave Bradley Fiske a bloody nose. The realization made Gabi want to laugh and spin and also hide in a secret cave deep in the bowels of the earth forever, since her days would surely be numbered now. So be it, Gabi concluded. If bashing Bradley’s face in was her last act on earth, she’d take it. It felt too good to regret.

“Well, it looks like you need to work on your defense, Fiske,” Helmsgerth chuckled, casting an appraising glance at Gabi. “Never underestimate your opponent.”

I’ve cut some of the content to avoid spoilers, but you get the point. Bradley is a symbol of oppression as much as a person, and Gabi’s ability to thwart him despite her fear and physical weakness a hint that there is more to this sickly girl than meets the eye. It’s a message that I hope readers will take to heart, and one that I will continue to hold close as opportunities to fight back against the Bradleys of the world arise (whether in the form of a person, movement, law, or politician). One never really knows how one will respond to a major threat until the moment of truth arrives, but in creating First Girl’s heroine Gabi Lowell, I gave myself the chance to do the right, hard thing, and succeed.