So tonight jmpava
and I were talking, and I realized that I hadn't told... most of you? any of you? the story of why I wound up going to the terrifying private school. Hint: it's not religious mania in my family. It had nothing to do with not liking public schools, or secular schools. It's that the local public school was, for me, much worse than even a scary private religious school.
This is also, in a very real way, the story of the way I learned that conflict is sometimes not as effective as walking away. It's also the story of how I first became a rabid feminist. It's also, maybe, a story of why many women worry about different things than many men. It's also a story of how maybe women who you don't think of might be a sexual harassment statistic.
A few notes to begin: I avoid naming names and places on purpose; please respect that. Also, it's not locked, because I am not ashamed of it, and because I think more people need to say things publicly about sexual harassment and the use of physical abuse to keep socially unacceptable girls down -- but it is an uncomfortable story, so be aware of that. Important, but uncomfortable. Also, I've had friends who had been raped -- not to mention that I follow the news, where I hear of more atrocities than I could shake a forest of sticks at -- so I know that my experience is not the be-all and end-all of trauma. Please don't feel the need to tell me that other people dealt with so much worse; it will just make me angry at you. I'm not trying to monger for sympathy; I'm telling something that's true about my life. This is my story; it is mine; it is important to me.
Like many people, I'd never been popular in elementary school -- but like many people, my unpopularity was more of a deal in junior high. I went from being vaguely-mocked and mostly-ignored to being the pariah, and all but two of my friends jumped ship and stopped talking to me after it became apparent that I was about as good for their reputations as bubonic plague. This would have been bearable -- irritating, sad, but quite deal-with-able -- except for the way that two of the boys in my English class chose to express their disdain for the social pariah.
They started groping me. In class. I don't think they were actually attracted to me (though I matured a little bit early, so I think breasts were an attractive novelty -- but it really didn't seem to be about sex). They had just been spending weeks finding ways to make me cry, and that was the most foolproof one. Taunts and insults I could ignore, nasty pranks I could overlook, but reach for my breasts and I would instantly turn red, hyperventilate, start to cry. It was easy, and they wanted to belittle me, to make me cry, and so they did it all the time. Two or three times a week.
Did I complain to the teacher? Of course I did -- after it became clear the problem wouldn't go away on its own, I summoned my courage and talked to the teacher. (Those of you who know how much I dislike conflict will know that that means it must've been upsetting me pretty badly.) He said that he couldn't do anything. Why? He hadn't seen it, of course. Ah. So it was mine to deal with. (The fact that he'd had two students regularly groping a third, and that third crying in class, without seeing it, spoke either to gross negligence -- which, given the way he ran the class in general, was possible -- or of not wanting to take a stand.)
What's more, about a month later, he rearranged seating. And put me right between them
. I don't know if that was more gross negligence, or an attempt to show me what happened to people who rocked the boat.
I had been telling my parents about this the whole time. (To their credit, I never, never, never
was afraid to tell them what was going on. My parents and I don't see eye to eye, but I have never doubted that they loved me or would back me up.) They went to speak to the administration when it became clear that my reporting it to the teacher would do nothing. The administration referred me to a counselor to 'resolve' the issue.
Meanwhile the problem continued, and since I now sat between them, it had increased to pretty near daily. I went to the counselor. I told him the whole sad story. He started to try to think of ways for me to stop them from doing it -- as though writing them letters saying that I didn't appreciate it would do a lot of good! -- but finally called the boys in question in to 'discuss' it. (I wasn't there.) Afterward I found out that both boys had denied it (of course) and backed each other up (of course), and so he said that he couldn't do anything. My word against theirs. His hands were tied.
"Okay," I said, "okay, I don't need them punished, that's fine, but can I be in a different class? A different period? A different seating arrangement? Something?"
"Why sure!" said the counselor. "Except we can't do anything about it now, so you'll have to wait for the end of the semester to change periods, because we never move students mid-semester. But then we'll move you."
I grit my teeth. I bear it. It keeps happening. The teacher is deliberately not paying attention, I'm sure. If I scream, I'll get in trouble for disrupting class, and the boys will have removed their hands as soon as he looks -- why should I have faith the teacher will do anything to protect me, when he hasn't for months? If deck the boys, I'll
get in trouble, and it'll give them a reason to hate me more. And I can't risk that.
I start crying every weeknight, and every Sunday night, because I have to go back, and there's nothing I can do to protect myself.
I start volunteering for the teachers I like and trust. I clean the science teacher's lab after hours. I help the history teacher file papers. I do this because I'm afraid to walk home after school, when they're walking home. If they'll put their hands on my breasts in the middle of class, in full light, with an authority figure there, what will they do if they get me alone?
I get called back to the counselor. There's a snag, he says; my schedule is such that I can't be moved. (Why? I don't ask. I'm eleven, and easily cowed, easily frightened, especially now. I don't know how to stand up for myself.) But they'll move the two boys. I don't want to be in the room with the teacher who won't protect me, but I agree: as long as my tormentors are gone, I'll manage okay.
Also, he wants to know: what could I have been doing to provoke them? I have no idea how to answer.
(I don't recognize the ridiculous misogyny of this question until I report it to my mother, and see fire in her eyes. I'm eleven. I'm pretty sheltered.)
I wait for the change of the semester. I count the days until the boys will no longer be sitting right next to me every day.
I show up after the Christmas break... and there they are, sitting on either side of me, when I'd been promised
I would now be away from them, safe. I go home in tears.
My parents go in to talk to the counselor. He says that the secretaries changed the schedule back. Why? I don't know. He won't answer them. It can't be changed back. He won't explain.
(We could sue. Do we sue? No. We don't have any money; we have just barely enough for food, not for lawyers. My dad's in college; we're living on a teacher's aide's salary and a military retirement. We have no money for a lawsuit, and if we anger the school district, my mom can lose her job. She's an at-will employee, after all.)
I start getting threatening notes from the girlfriends of the boys who are harassing me. They hate me for the same reason the boys do: I'm a pariah, an easy scapegoat. They hate me for another reason: their boyfriends are touching my breasts. They want to beat me up. I make sure I don't leave school when they're around, either.
My parents and I talk, and talk, and talk. They talk to the administration. Short of suing, there's nothing to do, and my parents won't leave me somewhere like that. (A boy -- another outcast -- kills himself that year. My mom said, years later, that that was what decided her: I wasn't suicidal then, but with another year of that? two years? three? -- who can say? Maybe I would've gone to the junior high and hanged myself from a basketball backboard, too.) The only other option in town is the scary conservative Christian school. They switch me over. (This is a significant financial hardship, but they bear it without complaint, because they cannot bear to see me hurt like that and do nothing.)
The school district is sad to see my GPA go, but relieved to see the back of a 'problem' student.
The private school was scary, repressive, controlling. Was it the wrong decision to send me there?
...Well, I didn't kill myself, there. No one ever touched me there, against my will. No one ever made me fear for my safety. I don't know. I doubt it was worse
, though it wasn't good. I don't know what two more years of abuse would've done to me. Lying about my political affiliation was much, much easier than the year I spent weeping as people touched my body and I could. not. make. it. stop.
I think you would be surprised how many women have stories like this, that it never occurs to them to tell. I forget, sometimes. It's easy. I don't think it traumatized me -- but it's important, and it's real, and it happened.Please, please, do not try to explain to me what I or my parents should have done differently. There might've been a different way to solve the problem -- but I was eleven, and we were poor. And furthermore, it shouldn't be the place of the victim to solve the problem. I hate that I have to make this caveat, but....