A hopeful rainbow over Potts Harbor. (Roger Aschbrenner photo)

I was 20, traveling in a van caravan with fellow students to study the geology and ecology of the West. By random chance, I was sharing a bench seat in a van across the endless plains of Kansas with a person who quickly became my No. 1 fan.

We were at a stop, maybe two days into a six-week trip, when my seat partner turned her kind face toward me, her blue-gray eyes earnest and direct, and in a clear voice, said, “I’m really glad I met you, Erin, because knowing you confirmed my decision to never have children.”

I laughed.

I laughed like someone laughs when something so sudden and absurd shocks your brain and kicks off a reflexive, nervous cackle. Remember the first time you saw Buster Keaton fool the cop into stepping off the curb and tumbling into a bottomless puddle? You gasped! When something happens that you never considered possible, awareness zings through your nervous system.

But when the shock wears off, you understand the world a little more and might think twice before donning your wellies and sloshing around after a rain.

My No. 1 fan and I didn’t have a fight or even a kerfuffle. I didn’t ooze out of my allotted seat space or fall asleep, drooling on her shoulder. I don’t even think I sang along to the radio. I felt icy waves of dislike rippling toward me from the start. She saw the seeds of the downfall of humanity resting in my being and wanted me, and everyone else, to know.

I fit in with the student travelers. We were boisterous, open and thrilled to be on an adventure for college credit. We were quick up mountains, dashed over trails and carried our backpacks with ease. We were more interested in the drinking ages in the states we visited than adding a new bird to a life list. My No. 1 fan was years out of school, sober in thought and deed, and in a different phase of life.

I remember my No. 1 fan for the shock she caused and not for any pain. She wasn’t strategic, so she wasn’t prepared with a plan to drive her barb deeper when it was clear it hadn’t pierced my vital organs. She took one shot, dead-on, and when it bounced off me, she let it go.

I wonder if she showed up for the trip with layered resentments already simmering in her system.

My experience with my No. 1 fan was my first brush with purposeful and casual cruelty, and I got off easy. Less than a week into the trip, as we crossed into Colorado, she decided to go home. My source of stress removed herself and I had space to be me. And when she was there, I had the luxury of not engaging because my safety was never in question.

As I grew up and my circles widened, I ran into more big fans. My gender, background, haircut and hobbies have all been a problem for someone at some time. I’d get it if my choices caused anyone harm, but the only person who ever got hurt because I played soccer was me.

Thankfully, just like my No. 1 fan, most of the fans who followed her lacked strategic vision, so they didn’t have teeth behind their bite. Not everyone escapes unscathed. And tormentors are always expanding their toolkit.

The internet can be an amazing place of connection. If you want to dive into a puddle of silent movie fandom or road trip oversharing, those delightful pools are waiting. But technology also gives internet trolls, with an ax to grind, usernames to hide behind when they reach out to prick you. It creates a platform to spread misinformation and help like-minded people find and affirm each other. You can trip into bottomless pits of anger and find people offering, along with brotherhood, a scapegoat for every grievance.

The Portland Press Herald recently published the results of a monthslong investigation into the rise of hate in Maine. Some hate groups, and the racist people they attract, look at the demographics of our great state and assume they’ll find comfort here.

These groups are strategic. They know how to recruit members and weaponize hate. They know how to make their group feel safe while striking fear into everyone else. Though I have the luxury of ignoring this because my white skin will let me float by unnoticed, who are we if we allow the most vulnerable to stand alone?

When my No. 1 fan lashed out, a group of people who barely knew me offered me support. The stakes raised by my lone bully pale in comparison to the problem of organized hate and the reality that some people face regular and purposeful cruelty, but the power of a group remains. We can decide who swims freely in our puddle and where the bottom is. We have the power to reject hate, and welcome, respect and protect the humanity of our neighbors splashing around with us — whether we look the same or not.

Erin O’Mara lives in Harpswell and serves on the Harpswell News Board of Directors.