I Know Why You Don't Understand but It's Okay

When I was in the 5th Grade I bought a shirt that said "The Weaker Sex Just Kicked Your Butt!" I felt powerful wearing that goofy little $9.99 wonder.  I was out there, taking a stand! No one at my small, conservative Catholic school could stop me, because it didn't say "ass" it said "butt" (which might as well have been the C-word in those days and times).

Ah, the power of speaking your mind.  I didn't actually know that women could be referred to as the "weaker sex" until I saw that shirt. No one talked like that. But once I knew this was a thing, I was pissed, and I needed to show that. On a shirt. At my school.

My folks must have let me do it, and I'm grateful. It was an early introduction into the world of wearing what you stand for on your sleeve (literally). And walking around with it, and knowing that other people might judge you or make fun of you (which happened) or just casually silence you. I needed this lesson, though I didn't know it. I needed this toughening up.

When I was in the 11th grade I was sexually harassed at school. A boy walked up the stairs and put his hand under my butt and slid it along as he walked past. At first, I didn't think it had really happened. My first instinct was to doubt myself. (Revision: my first instinct was to believe in the goodness of other people.) He must have done it by accident. He was on the track team with me. I looked up in shock and waited for him to look back and laugh. "Look at me, Blake!* Say something stupid so I can punch you in the arm and we can laugh and this will be just be a dumb joke."

But he didn't look at me. He just kept walking. So I just felt scared and silly and dismissed it.

Until he did it again. Later that same day he touched me again, and this time his hand lingered on my butt a little longer, it was more grabby, more brazen. In a moment, I realized (a) I was not wrong about the first time, (b) he got away with it once so he thinks he can do it again, and (c) I want to curl up into a ball and disappear.

I did not "kick his butt." I did not punch his arm. I cried out, "He did it again!" My voice cracked. And then I ran into my track coach's classroom with a friend trailing behind. And I cried and cried and shook with fear. The idea of going back out into the hall terrified me.

It was not the reaction I had anticipated.

When I young, I played basketball on the playground with the boys. They hadn't invited me. I just wanted to play so I made them let me in. I enjoyed these little acts of defiance, and I recruited my girl friends to join in too. One time I stood in the way of the P.E. teacher who was only asking boy students to come up and demonstrate the football positions. I demanded to be seen. I dared anyone to try and exclude me because I was a girl.

But in the track coach's classroom all I wanted was to disappear. I felt gross. I felt like someone had pulled my pants down. I wanted to step out of my skin because I was so, so gross. And all the damn crying. The tears poured out. I looked back a few days later just dumbfounded. I didn't understand the reaction then, and I didn't understand it as it was happening. It would be years before I'd understand, or hear other girls describe the same kind of thing.

Why didn't I kick his butt?

I didn't have that shirt any more. I'm not sure what happened to it.

Within days this boy had been suspended. The administration took care of all that. I don't remember having to tell my story to a bunch of people, I think they all believed what had happened and they took it seriously. But other kids didn't. They didn't know. Blake wasn't just ON the track team, he was a STAR on the team. Kind of a strange, quieter guy, but lightening fast. I could see how people wouldn't believe he'd do anything like this.

In English class one day I saw a boy sitting across the room from me wearing a shirt that he had made himself. It said "Bring Back the Falcon." The Falcon was Blake. Then I saw that there were others too, with shirts or pins saying the same thing. They didn't believe me. (Revision: they didn't know. They truly did not know what the eff they were doing.)

To this, I reacted with sadness and a bit of anger. I mean, fuck these guys. I didn't need this. I didn't ask for this. I didn't get the kid suspended. What was I supposed to do? I really did not know. It seemed like I had done something wrong, I got that feeling. It registered (you selfish girl, why did you punish this talented young man?) Only I was at a total loss to explain what I had or hadn't done.

Because I couldn't. Because it had been done TO ME. Me, the victim, only I'd never seen myself as a victim. 

What could I do? I could throw my hands up at them, tell them "I can't DO anything! This wasn't my fault!" I could skip school for a while, let it blow over.

I could have put on my energetic, young feminist hat and reamed them out for being dicks to a victim of sexual harassment. But that girl was not there. Not even close. I was still afraid, still shaky. I didn't want to feel that way. But I didn't get to choose.

It's been seventeen years since this happened. The fear is still there. I still don't understand why it was fear and not anger, except that I lived it, and through that experience I do understand. I get it in a way that can't be reduced to words. My heart reacted, perhaps, because it understood exactly what that boy was doing. It wasn't just a touch. It was an invasion. It crossed a line of consent, of respect, of recognizing that I was a person whose opinion about what my body would and wouldn't do, mattered. He didn't look at me. He didn't do it by accident. He thought he could get away with it.

I'd like to tell you that I'm glad I took a stand. But I wasn't. If I'd known what would happen, that they would wear shirts and mock me and disbelieve that I'd had this painful experience, I would have stayed silent. I would have asked them to let me stay home and keep Blake at school.

Does that make you sad to hear? I'm sad about it. I'm pissed about it.

But now I am ready to speak this truth. I understand why they mocked me. I understand they didn't have a goddamn clue. A minute before it happened, I didn't have a clue either. I would have wondered why one little touch would reduce me to a crying, panicky mess. Why would one incident send a track star home on suspension? Couldn't they at least let him practice with the team? Was it that big a deal?

I didn't have a clue what I'd do in a situation like this. Victims don't kick ass. They cry, and hurt, and feel terror and shame. That's normal. And lots of people don't get it, sometimes I guess you need to live through it.

Now before you give up on this hopeless mess of a sad story, let me remind you: one person did believe me. Coach Nelson believed me. He never doubted it. He looked into my eyes and heard my words and went straight to the principal's office and did the right thing. He didn't pause for a second. And don't forget, this track star was Coach Nelson's track star. We lost the next track meet. It didn't matter. I mattered. Doing the right thing mattered. I didn't fully appreciate it at the time, but I've never forgotten. Bystanders can be so powerful, they have more power than they know.

Coach, wherever you are, thank you. May the world be filled with people just like you. May we all believe in the goodness of people.
-----

This is a story I've been mulling over for some time, and especially during this 2016 election season. Donald Trump brought sexual harassment to the forefront of American conversation and appalled us with his words and actions, but the result was that we elected him and ignored the bad things he'd said and done. I feel like I understand all of this so well, and it goes back to these incidences I had as a teenager. I know why Trump doesn't think it's a big deal. I know why the women didn't speak out then and why some of them don't speak out now and why some of them do. I know how they felt and how they feel now after being ridiculed.

We should be ashamed of looking past these actions and electing him anyways. We should have stood up for these women, and stood up to Trump. I believe that with all my heart. And yet I also believe in the goodness of people. I don't think cluelessness makes you an evil person. I believe people deserve a second chance, including the American people. I believe we can make this right. 

 

*Blake is not his real name. He knows who he is, and I truly hope that he finds peace.