By the time I earned my college degree, I had four teachers who acted inappropriately towards their students. One was in college, one in high school, one in middle school, and two in elementary. I remember my interactions with all of them be to universally confusing and, for lack of a better word, gross.
In the second grade my father left my mother, and in my small Christian school I was the only kid with a single mother. The other kids were generally nice about this, but because his exit from my life was so fresh and my friends had no experience with that kind of family break down, I was alone in dealing with my feelings.
I looked for Dad everywhere: in large crowds, while riding in the car, in the credits of movies and TV shows. One day we had a substitute who looked so much like my father, I immediately burst into tears when I saw him. I knew he was not my father, but when he noticed me crying he gently put me on his lap and stroked hair, then my legs. He told me it would be all right and that I was a very pretty little girl, but it did not comfort me. I felt confused by this strangely close contact with a man I did not know and who I did not necessarily want to touch, but I was too scared and too upset to tell him to stop, because he was an authority figure and The Lord had said to respect authority without question.
All I knew was that the physical attention he showed me felt wrong and I shouldn’t tell anyone ever. Even when my grandparents picked me up that afternoon and remarked on how my substitute looked just like “you know who” (an appropriate code name for my father, who was viewed with a rather Voldemort-like hatred among the adults in my family at that time) I said nothing. Years later when my parents read in the paper about his arrest as a cornerstone of a local child pornography ring, I said nothing. In fact, I did not tell a single soul until I decided to write this post, and I told my husband so that, should he read this, he would not be shocked. He reacted so perfectly: calm and comforting while assuring me that he believed me and it wasn’t my fault.
I let the weirdly-touchy sub slip from my mind, until the seventh grade, when I had a Social Studies teacher who paid the girls too much attention. We all felt strange near him and gossiped about him frequently. In a sense, it allowed us to unite around a common enemy. I remember distinctly the way he would toss malted milk balls in the air and ask girls to catch them in our mouths once class had ended. And even today I can smell his after-shave as he leaned in close to me and peered down my shirt, giving me test answers. He never left any evidence of his actions. Nothing that would be admissible in court, and his actions were always the kind where, perhaps, a reasonable person could see both sides of the story.
Imagine trying, as a twelve year-old, to prove that a man four times your age looked down your blouse. Can you imagine telling your headmaster, a man, that you didn’t like catching malted milk balls in your mouth because it reminded you of oral sex? My school began teaching the virtues and necessity of waiting until marriage for any sexual conduct beginning in grade four; it did not each about the biology of sex until grade seven. It was not the kind of climate in which a person, especially a young person, could admit to any sexual knowledge.
As difficult as it was to navigate the situation he put me in, I think what affected me most was the reaction of older girls towards how he made the younger girls feel. They simply told us, with all the wisdom that eight and ninth-graders could muster, that dealing with men acting that way was the price a woman must pay to live and work in a man’s world. It was like sexual assault is a tax on a woman’s body in order to go to work and play with the “big boys.”
I carried that belief with my through high school and the teacher who told one fourteen year-old, “you’re looking particularly seductive today” and stared boldly at another’s breasts. I carried it into college where my freshman Shakespeare professor followed me from class to my dorm twice a week despite me asking him not to, gave me a bad grade on a decent paper, and asked me to come to his office alone (I dropped the course before it could get any creepier, and then dealt with my mother yelling at me for it, calling me a quitter). And I carried it into my first sexual experience when my partner told me that if things got too intense for me I could not say no; he would not stop no matter what.
I carried that belief, that what is between my legs should dictate the way people treat me, until I was a college sophomore in philosophy class. Our professor wanted us to come up with a moral quandary; you know, a “what should I do?” situation where we could apply different philosophical perspectives to the questions. Here is what I submitted:
“You are a seventh-grader who has a fantastic Social Studies teacher (this point is true, he was one of the best teachers I have ever had). He does seem to pay too much attention to the girls in the class, though. Despite their obvious discomfort with him and what many would describe as inappropriate. However, nothing he has done is specifically illegal. Should you, as a student, turn him in, knowing that you have little evidence and that it could ruin his life if fired and that he could damage you academically if he is not fired? Or should you heed the advice of older girls in the school and keep quiet? “
My TA pulled me aside and told me outright that this is not a moral quandary, but rather sexual assault and if it was true then the girl should turn him in. While I am sure TA meant this for the best, it was said in such an accusatory tone that I shut down. I totally shut down and did not discuss the truth with anyone until the statute of limitations ran out, so that no one would ever make me feel that level of guilt again, either about the events themselves or my ten years of silence.
I wish that someone had told me years ago that telling my story was vital, because all of us telling our stories IS vital. We need every voice we can get, including yours. In a sense, these events led me to feminism. Believing that I had to deal with sexual assault because I am a woman in a man’s world paved the way for a solid understanding of rape culture, and the early sense of camaraderie surrounding the inappropriate actions of one man gave me a vision of people unified against injustice that today permeates my life and actions.
I wish that I was taught as a young person about consent and rape culture. I wish that I did not grow up in a place where sex was and is defined narrowly as between a married man and woman. I wish that shame wasn’t the predominate emotion I feel even now towards these events, and that is why this page is so important. The only way we can minimize the stigma is by shedding light on what happened and, hopefully, looking together towards a day when victim shaming is no longer an issue.