Not My Burden

Almost every day now, there is a new story in the media about sexual assault and harassment.  People, and so far, exclusively male people, in a whole raft of industries and professions, are being outed as sexual predators who have abused their power for their own sexual gratification.  Potentially criminal incidents involving under-age teens in both professional and educational environments are being exposed.  These people are being accused of sexually harassing, molesting, and assaulting colleagues and subordinates.  I applaud the courage of the women and men who are speaking out, telling their stories and speaking their truths.  It is a hard thing to do, and it is long overdue, because predators like these have always been among us.

I weep as I type those words.

Through the wonder of Facebook, I am back in contact, both online and in real life, with a number of people with whom I went to high school.  I am enjoying renewing these friendships, and getting to know these people as adults.  I  attended a class reunion recently, and had lovely times at both a pre-reunion party, and the reunion itself.  But when one of these high school friends shared her opinion that our youth in Bethel was ‘sheltered’.  I could only nod, because there was just too much for me to say.  I am truly happy for my friend, that she felt sheltered.  I am glad for her, that this is her truth.  My truth is rather different, and I would not wish it upon anyone.

I tell my story now because what is happening in the public sphere has helped me realize that the burden of shame is not mine.  That burden is on the predator’s shoulders. Predators seek out the vulnerable.  I think it’s important to shine as many lights, in as many dark corners of the past and present as we possibly can. I do not name this person, however, because he can no longer hurt anyone, and I have no wish to harm by association any of his family.

I tell my story  now, because, quite obviously, that high school reunion stirred up a great many old memories.  My story is also about how I came to be vulnerable.  However, I seek only to paint a general picture, not to throw specific stones at any individual.  Time, distance, and middle-aged memory prevent that, and that is fine.

And finally, I tell my story because I am sure that I am not the only one from this era with a story.  I am probably not the only student molested by this teacher.  I also know of at least one other faculty predator and a student predator.  I have heard rumors of yet a third faculty predator.  I cannot tell their stories, only my own. But I believe their stories, because of my own.

 

My childhood was difficult for a number of reasons – a difficult, unsettled home life involving multiple divorces, alchohol abuse, several school changes, and an undiagnosed parental mental illness.  That is the Reader’s Digest condensed version.  So for all of the reasons listed above, school, when I was younger, was something of a refuge.  It also helped that I was smart.  I liked to learn.  I thought algebra was fun.  I loved to read – novels, history, mysteries.  I loved language.

When my mom moved our family back to Bethel in 1969,  we (my mom & my two younger sisters) moved in with my mom’s parents, and I entered the Bethel school system in the sixth grade.  I don’t have any bad memories from middle school.  I remember making friends, going on school outings, enjoying my classes.  Home life remained periodically difficult, but that was my normal.

Many things changed in 1971.  In the fall, I entered high school.  And over the course of the previous year, I had changed physically, growing a pair of breasts that had no business being on the body of a 12-year old girl.  My initial training bras were swiftly overwhelmed and I began to attract attention I was ill-equipped to deal with.  I recall learning to avoid the front of the school during lunch, where the older boys taught their younger brethren how to harass, choosing to yell at me, “It is Balloons!” in a loud chorus.  Please allow me to repeat – I was 12 years old.  Even now, at 58, I am still taken aback by the thoughtless cruelty.

I added to my own difficulties when a popular boy in my class asked me to meet him behind the school one day.  We engaged in what what was known then as ‘necking’ and ‘petting’.  It was all consensual.  I, quite frankly, had been surprised and thrilled that this boy had any interest in me.  After a while, we got up from the field we had been lying in, and went our seperate ways.  I recall no words of affection.  So, what I had naively hoped was someone being interested in me was just someone interested in my body. Regrettably, I was willing to accept this and a pattern was begun.  What I did not anticipate was that details of what I thought was a private encounter would be made public.  The word apparently went round that I was ‘easy’.  Other boys expressed interest, and I had other encounters in out of the way places,  fumbling and unsatisfying, and my ‘reputation’ was cemented.  I had no adult either paying close attention, or available for advice as to how to navigate this world.

What turned out to be an equally damaging repercussion of my affection-seeking was finding myself unexpectedly ostracized by most of my girlfriends.   Inevitably, word of my behavior had gotten round to them.  I recall going to a slumber party, and being asked, during the late-night conversations, if I had done various things with boys.   I remember being asked what this or that felt like.  I thought I was with my friends, and I answered their questions as best as I could.  I guess I didn’t really think, even at that time, that I had done anything wrong.  In any event, I can only surmise that the information I shared was too much.  I try to remember now that they were very young, too.  I don’t recall how I became aware that my friends were now my former friends, but it seemed very sudden.  I do remember a painful conversation with a couple of them at lunch,  when I asked what I had done wrong.  I don’t remember the answer, only that I was left feeling hurt, confused, and terribly alone.

Eventually, I made new friends, who I remember fondly, but not many, and I think I was probably more reserved with them.  I never quite fit in with any of the groups that teens break off into.  Eventually, in my senior year, I acquired a steady boyfriend, a sophomore who made me laugh and had no knowledge of my first years in high school.  Mostly, though, I was isolated, hiding in a faculty office/prep room when I wasn’t in class, trying to avoid unwanted attention from male students. But I was noticed, by a faculty predator.

Both lack of memory and nausea preclude sharing of a lot of detail.   I don’t recall how it began. I don’t recall how many encounters there were.  I don’t remember where the places he drove us to, so he could grope me, were.  I don’t remember how I finally stopped it.  I remember him telling me to tell my mother I was babysitting for him, which now indicates to me that he was practiced at this.  I was probably not his first prey, and I do not know if I was his last.  He was aware of my age, 16, and took care to not go beyond what kissing and fondling I would allow.  I’m aware now of my own passivity in the whole experience.  I am so sad now for the girl I was, and her acceptance of a predator’s attentions.

I’m not sure how to end this tale.  As I proofread, trying to be as accurate and truthful as possible,  I find that while I am sad, I am also peaceful.  I have shared this story with so very few people, but there is relief in making public what was hidden.  I was not sheltered in my youth.  But I chose to use my damage and my hurt to help me become stronger.   I chose to pursue a professional life of service, so that I might help and protect others who could not help or protect themselves.  And I choose to speak now, so that my voice might be part of the greater chorus against those who would abuse their positions of power and trust.  I know I am not alone.