The Day Ruth Bigsby Died.
I never came right out and hurt Ruth Bigsby, but I was just as responsible for her death as the rest of our senior class. The local news reporters on Fox, ABC, and CNN called it suicide, because of how Ruth executed a perfect swan dive off of the New Paltz public library roof, but it felt more like murder. And if the whole class was standing there cheering her on, Jessica Gleason was the one who stepped forward and gave her a shove. Sitting at graduation, listening to the principle talk about how we were all finally adults, heading out into the real world with a real purpose, I looked around at the faces I’d been seeing since kindergarten and shuddered at the thought that they were all, like myself, capable of murder.
Ruth did the deed on the hottest February Tuesday upstate New York had seen in over twenty-three years. A high of sixty-eight and not a cloud in the sky. The sun was shining brighter than a lamp with no shade and if you didn’t check the calendar to see the date, you probably would have figured it for March or April. People were coming out on their porches for work and school in their sweaters and jackets, pausing to look around and sniff the almost spring-like air and then turning around and heading back inside to change. Everyone at school was wearing short sleeves and real summery looking clothes, even though the inside of New Paltz High was still pretty chilly.
My dad always says that if you’re not a part of the solution, you’re a part of the problem. That’s what Ruth Bigsby always was to the rest of us-one big problem. She’d been getting picked on for as long as anyone could remember. Right from kindergarten most kids were making fun of her second-hand clothes that seemed to always need washing. Her stringy, brown hair was never pulled up in a cute scrunchy or clip, but instead always hung like a dank curtain to hide her face. Ruth wasn’t exactly what anyone could call pretty, but she might have looked better if she had a mom to fix her hair and wash her laundry. Instead she had a drunken dad that we all called “Pukey Pete” because on more than one occasion he was known to puke outside P & G’s and pass out in his parked truck. The grownups always talked in whispers about the Bigsby family. Seems Ruth’s mom, Gail Bigsby, had been kind of pretty and sweet. But one day she fell down the stairs of their apartment and broke her neck. Allegedly, it was an accident, but from the whispers of the adults it was clear no one really believed that.
If you ask me, Ruth never really had a chance at making friends. Besides the obvious things like lack of hygiene and being poor and all, she just never seemed that bright. Any school day of the year you could see her squinting at her notebooks, her textbooks, or the blackboard, gnawing on the end of her pen like some kind of rabid skunk, her deep-set eyes filled with confusion while boys like Cliff Tally and Chris O’Dell made “Pee-U” sounds and farting noises in her direction. Once a pen even exploded all over her face and mouth, blackening her teeth and causing the whole class to laugh. Some kids snickered a little guiltily behind their hands while others, like Cliff and Chris and Jessica, laughed and pointed outright.
In middle school, to add insult to injury, Ruth blew up to nearly two hundred sweaty, shuffling, wheezing pounds. Teasing turned into tormenting and when the petite, blonde, ferret-faced Jessica Gleason dubbed her “Big Ruth Bigsby” the name stuck and Ruth began to suffer in new ways. Walking down the hall behind her, boys would make pounding noises and pretend she was causing an earthquake. A flush would creep over her acne-spotted cheeks and she would hurry along faster, but that only increased the frenzy of their attacks. Occasionally, someone would stick out a foot and trip her, laughing hysterically with the crowd while she scrambled to collect her books and papers from the floor, her too-tight pants stretched over her huge butt.
It was disgusting to watch and while pity was unavoidable, you also had to wonder why she couldn’t pull herself together. Fight back, try harder, and blend in-anything other than just letting people torture her. I could feel myself cringe on the inside whenever Ruth was in the midst of one of those attacks, yet on the outside I was laughing just like everyone else. If I didn’t, I risked becoming the victim of teasing myself. After all, I was hardly Miss Popularity. I balanced precariously on the ledge between THE QUIET GIRL and A NOBODY. In high school you’re basically either a part of the “In” crowd or you’re not, but some of us managed to waver somewhere in the middle. There was no way I was going to risk becoming an outcast by associating myself with a social deadweight like Big Ruth Bigsby. Sure, sometimes I felt guilty for not sticking up for her, especially since I knew better, but I consoled myself with the barely reassuring fact that I never actually teased her myself.
All eighties movies and clichés aside, high school is war and you’re lucky if you make it through without blowing off a leg in a minefield. Anyone that says otherwise either doesn’t remember high school very well or was part of that elusive “In” crowd themselves. John Hughes always made it seem like the jocks and the geeks and the freaks could all bond over detention or make this huge stand and learn some valuable lesson about accepting others, but the truth is there’s no more dangerous predator for kids than the popular kid sitting next to them in math class, making their life a living hell. If I had stuck up for Ruth Bigsby just one time, she might still be alive, but more than likely she still would have been tortured and I would have been right there in the trenches with her. It wasn’t a risk I was willing to take, so instead I just went on laughing with the rest of them, doing my best to fit in.
That particular Tuesday, the day Ruth decided enough was enough, most seniors were too focused on the warm weather, upcoming Prom, and our much-anticipated graduation to bother with Ruth. However, a shrewd observer might have noticed that spring was in the air for Ruth that day as well. Instead of her usual unkempt appearance, she was wearing a flowered skirt and purple top that almost made her look a little thinner. Her brown hair, usually greasy at the roots and frizzy everywhere else, was blow-dried and clean. Her skin, typically a mess of volcanic pimples and old acne scars, was covered in what appeared to be an attempt at makeup. She still wasn’t pretty, but that day Ruth had tried.
It had to be at lunch, with most of the senior class lounging in the courtyard, that Jessica Gleason, bored and more than a little irritated at her on-again off-again boyfriend Chris O’Dell, noticed Ruth Bigsby sitting quietly on a picnic bench under a tree. She stared at her, her mean eyes forced into slits as she watched poor Ruth eating a burger and fries. She nudged her cronies Pam Edmond and Lisa Garris, who were preening next to her, and they all turned to stare. They always sat in the same place, like a queen on a throne with her ladies in waiting. Unfortunately, Ruth had picked a bench in a location where in order to get to the trash cans she had to lumber right by Jessica, Pam, and Lisa. As she finished her lunch, gathered her garbage, and shuffled shyly across the courtyard towards the cans, Jessica stood up and slinked towards her, throwing a wink back over her bony shoulder at Pam and Lisa. They giggled and watched with excited, sparkly eyes as Jessica slipped behind an unsuspecting Ruth, reached out and grasped the hem of her flowered skirt in her bright pink claws, and yanked down.
There was dead silence save for Ruth’s gasp and the cackling laughter of Jessica and her friends. Everyone in the courtyard stared, frozen for just a few seconds in disbelief. Then, slowly but surely a wave of laughter, hoots, and hollers swept over the crowd. It was almost impossible not to laugh, even if you were just laughing out of nervousness. Most of us had been laughing at Ruth so long, we didn’t even think about it anymore. As she clutched at her skirt and tried to pull it up while stumbling towards the parking lot, she tripped and fell, which caused the crowd to laugh even harder. She looked like a beached whale, floundering towards an ocean that was just out of reach. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, as Jessica Gleason pointed and laughed harder and longer than anyone else, Ruth managed to pull herself to her feet and make it out of the courtyard and onto the road, where she made off in the direction of downtown.
I’m guessing there’s a moment in everyone’s life where they have a chance to do the right thing in a really bad situation and if they fail to do so they’ll be forced to stare at that guilt in the mirror every morning for the rest of their life. Yah, I know, forgiveness is divine and all that, but in that moment I felt like I should get up and do something and I didn’t. What exactly I could have done I’m not sure-go after her, yell at my classmates to leave her alone, anything to show that I hadn’t completely sold my soul to the devil. But I did nothing. I sat there, frozen to the bench, watching Ruth run off and somehow knowing that this time we had crossed the line and nothing would ever really be okay for Ruth Bigsby ever again.
It’s only about three blocks from the school to the library, but I can picture now how long that journey must have seemed to Ruth. Sweating, crying, fighting for breath, she must have thought she’d never make it. Surely she was thirstier than she had ever been. Did she think about what she was going to do or did her feet take on a mind of their own and carry her to that rooftop? Didn’t any adults, a kind elderly woman or a mother or father running errands or jogging, stop her to ask what was wrong? Of course not. Teachers had seen what was going on for years and never intervened.
Ruth Bigsby made it to that rooftop and jumped off just seventeen minutes after Jessica Gleason exposed her in front of most of our class. No one will ever know if she stopped short once she reached the edge and thought it through or if she just ran across the black tar roof and threw herself into the air. They’re calling it a suicide, those reporters, but it seems more like murder to me. We all walked her to the edge, year after year, insult after insult, but it was Jessica who gave the final push as she teetered on the brink. Somebody, anybody, could have reached out to grab her before it was too late, but nobody did. That’s a guilt that’s real hard to get rid of, no matter how you spin it.