When I was in fifth grade a boy I’d been sitting next to all year suddenly turned on me. He wore heavy boots to school and he began to make a sport of kicking me vigorously in the legs while I sat in my desk. His penis looked like a football helmet, he told me. He was going to ram me with it.
The third time I stood to wait in line at the teacher’s desk to tell on the boy for hurting me, the teacher told me to please sit down. I needed to handle my own problems.
Eventually the boy lost interest in kicking and threatening to rape me. He was in trouble a lot at school, including corporal punishment from the vice principal, just never for what he did to me. I was relieved when he left me alone, but never relaxed. I always knew that once he or any boy turned his attention on me, there would be nothing I could do about it.
When I was a young girl, I lived with a constant threat of violence and unwanted sexual attention, and I wasn’t the only one. A girl in my class had her crotch grabbed right in front of the teacher and everybody by a boy who claimed to love her. The boy was reprimanded, but not punished. The girl was furious. The teacher told her to calm down. We went about our day like nothing happened.
We all knew not to wear dresses or skirts on Fridays. If you were a girl when I was a girl, you know why too. Friday Flip Day, anyone?
On the way home from school in sixth grade, a much larger boy knocked my friend to the ground and sat on her stomach, threatening to kill her. I just sat on the curb and waited for it to be over, which sooner or later it was.
When it happened in junior high and again in high school that I was relentlessly followed around the school by unwanted “admirers,” I hated it but I bore it. The message from adults was that I should be flattered that the boy in question liked me. My friends made fun of me for it. It never occurred to us to use a word like stalking.
By the time I was in my late teens and a skeevy manager cornered me in a tiny office at my new job, I knew just to be as still as possible. I showed no interest while he did weird things to my bare arm with his pen and asked me what kind of girl I was. I put up with it. I knew he would go away eventually. And he did.
Hyper-vigilance didn’t protect me from harassment and persistent unwanted attention at school and work when I was young. Yet it is remarkable how stressed out I wasn’t. Let me put it this way, If I were kicked and threatened repeatedly at work today, I would be a nervous wreck right now. I wouldn’t be sitting here writing a blog post and making rice for dinner. I would be upset. But when I was ten, eleven, twelve, and so on, if you’d asked me how my day was after I had been harassed and threatened with rape, I would have said fine.
I can’t imagine how I would feel facing the daily, routine stress of threats, harassment, and physical abuse now that I am a grown woman with power and physical strength. How did I bear it as a small-for-my-age child? All I know is that each time, once I realized I was in a situation I couldn’t escape, I hunkered down. Gutted it out. Put up with it.
We must continue to practice vigilance with our children. The way our feelings and safety concerns were disregarded must not be our guide in the raising of our own kids. I went through life as a girl child and this is just my perspective, but boys were no safer, especially from older boys and grown men. (I often wonder now about the abuse the boy attacking me in fifth grade may very well have been suffering.) As a child, I pretended it wasn’t happening. I will not make the mistake of pretending as an adult.
The putting up with it thing is why I’m hyper vigilant with my own daughters. I don’t want them to consider harassment and the threat of violence to be normal. I don’t want them to learn to rationalize someone else’s aggressive and selfish behavior, and to minimize their own feelings. They learn how to fight their own battles, but they also know damn well that if Mom gets wind of anyone messing with them, there will be a hell to pay to bring on the end of days.
(I admit to being a little high strung about sexual harassment and threats with my own daughters. Funny that I still feel that I have to explain, maybe even apologize for, the intensity of my protective strength.)
Watching my own daughters navigate their lives from positions of autonomy and power has felt like redemption. Yet I am never too far from that ten-year-old trying to finish her math worksheet, welts on her shins from a boy’s steel-toed boots.
In running my own peaceful classrooms and raising my own resilient daughters, I stand up from that little desk and say, no more sexual harassment, threats, or violence.
I do not put up with it.
The forthcoming release of my novel The Ghost Daughter has got me all thinking about trauma, resilience, and the strength of a mother’s love. Check it out here if you want.