#MeToo

It wasn’t rape. There was no penetration. I was not beaten, nor was I abused. I wasn’t a young girl. I hadn’t been drinking. There were no drugs involved. I didn’t wake up the next morning questioning my memory of the events that had transpired.

Every year in June, I remember. Every time I see that tailored dress from Banana Republic in my closet, I am reminded. The truth is, I won’t ever forget.

As a high school teacher, the two events I like to chaperone are prom and graduation. Both rites of passage, at prom I get to relive my own high school memories as girls kick off their high heels as soon as possible and boys offer their dates their tuxedo jackets to keep warm. Graduation is the culmination of all the work we do; it is the ultimate goal for both students and teachers.

Several years ago, I volunteered to work graduation; I haven’t done it again since.

I wasn’t thrilled to learn that I had been assigned to supervise the boys’ waiting area. Separated by gender, there are two rooms where students leave their personal belongings and put on their caps and gowns. They act as holding cells until the students are told to line up. The energy is high. You can smell it in the air. I would have preferred to be with the girls, holding mirrors for them while they reapplied make-up and fixed their hair. Instead, I was caged up with the boys, counting down the minutes.

When the time had come, this mass of young men assembled in the hall and waited for the doors to open to begin the procession towards the stage. The girls, positioned down another hall, would enter through separate doors. In alternate colors, they’d meet as they walked in. Purple, White, Purple, White, Purple, White.

It was in this hall, packed with eighteen-year-olds on one of the most significant days of their lives, that I experienced my Me Too. As I made my way through the crowd of bodies, a hand grabbed my right butt cheek and squeezed, hard. Then it released its grip.

It shook me. I stopped and turned towards a sea of purple robes. Panicked, I quickly exited the hall.

There was no way of knowing who had done it, but I still felt the imprint of that hand on my bottom. Finding a friend, I told her what had happened, but I was embarrassed and ashamed.

What if it had been one of my former students? The thought deposited my stomach in my throat. Yet I was aware of the statistics: most sexual assaults are performed by someone the victim knows.

I am a professional. I was professionally dressed. I was a couple of decades older than these boys. And yet, I was stripped of all of that by one faceless grope in a crowd. I felt dumb, and young, and vulnerable. I felt disrespected as a person, as a woman, and as a teacher.

Part of me wanted to get far, far away from what happened, but a part of me wished I could go back, grab that wrist, yank that pervert from the crowd, see his face, identify him, drag him to administration, demand that he not be allowed to walk the stage, pull his parents from the audience, make him explain to them why he was not able to get his diploma that day, press charges even.

That was what I fantasized because that would have given me back my power. But like all the comebacks I’ve never spoken, I didn’t react quickly enough.

I was powerless: a common denominator of Me Too.

I imagined this being some kind of testosterone-induced dare. How many other students were in on it? I envisioned the same boys next year as college freshmen, gang raping a sorority girl. I thought about how I’d never once walked a campus at night without practically running, holding my keys like a weapon.

As co-workers met after the ceremony at a local bar, I told a male colleague what had occurred. “I heard,” he said. “A bunch of kids were talking about it, but when I approached them, they all clammed up.”

My integrity was stolen and they were bragging about it? But I wondered, why hadn’t he done more? Why hadn’t he rounded them all up, made them confess? In my mind, I told myself that it was because no one thought it was a big deal. So a kid grabbed your ass. So what?

Someone suggested I take it as a compliment. Degraded, I left and went home.  

When my husband asked how graduation went, I told him what happened. His first response was a chuckle of sorts. With tears welling I looked at him, and for the first time, I saw him as one of them. How could you laugh? I was sexually violated. He quickly apologized and admitted that he had the wrong reaction; he wasn’t sure how to react. Of course he was upset by this. Of course he was angry. I believed him if only because I couldn’t fathom the ramifications if I chose not to.

This past Sunday, when I started seeing the posts on Twitter and Facebook of friends and family members who were writing Me Too, that memory surfaced. It’s always there, but I hold it down until something triggers it to rear its head, take another gasp of air, and sink back to where it continues to dwell.

 “And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world and me…”            

                                                                                              –Richard Wright

Earlier that same weekend, my book club met. We were discussing Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Four white women, we quickly turned from discussing race to discussing gender. Often our book talks veer off-topic, but we hadn’t been sidetracked. This was how we could relate. We are not black, and we are not black men, but as women, we all knew fear, and much of what Coates writes about is fear.

In Between the World and Me, Coates is speaking directly to his teenage son. He tells him, “You have seen so much more of all that is lost when they destroy your body.”

When they destroy your body…

That when, I read, as inevitable. It is bound to happen. When you are born black, they will destroy your body. Coates was speaking to his son with the knowledge that one day, he too, would be destroyed. Perhaps that is why this line made it hard for me to breathe.

As I look at my beautiful daughters, I know in my heart that a day will come when they each will face a Me Too. I can hope it won’t happen, but I know the statistics: because they are female, because they are girls, because they will grow to become women, it probably will.

Soon, I will need to have a very real, very painful conversation with each of them about the risks they take just by existing in this world.

In the meantime, I pray: Let them not be raped. Let there be no penetration. Let them not be beaten. Let them not be abused…

I may not have posted it on my Facebook feed. I may not have Tweeted it to the world. I couldn’t bring myself to like anyone’s status, nor can I share anyone’s story but my own though I have been witness and confidant to many more. But for each post I saw, I thought, Not you too.

I went to sleep that night and with great sadness, those words replayed in my head: Me Too. Me Too. Me Too.

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STOP SEXUAL ASSAULT

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To Forgive, Divine

I picked up my copy of Rising Strong in the airport while we waited for the first leg of our flight that would take us to Mexico. As my children browsed the souvenirs, I perused the titles of paperbacks with no intention of buying anything. After all, I had a book I needed to finish for my book club and I’d packed my Kindle with a memoir I’d downloaded that I was prepared to start as well, but by the time I boarded the plane, I also had Brené Brown’s latest title in hand.

Mexico was the vacation that we had hoped it would be. Instead of visiting family in Florida or New York, we took our children to a place where we knew no one, where we were tourists. We lounged by pools while waiters offered us happy hour drinks all day long. They brought our children cheesy nachos and brought us salted margaritas all while the sun turned our skin different shades of pink.

For one whole week, I turned my cell phone off and never once checked email or social media. We watched baby sea turtles make their way to the ocean, and despite the birds that circled overhead threatening to pluck them from the sand, we didn’t interfere. Later, I watched my own children playing together in the brackish waves; I felt extremely blessed to have witnessed both in the same day, knowing these were memories I would cherish forever.

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We didn’t realize when we booked our trip that we were headed to Mexico during their rainy season, but we didn’t mind the few afternoons when the thunderstorms cracked open the sky. We watched from the balcony as sheets of rain danced from the sea towards the mountains and lightening sizzled through the humid air. These interruptions in paradise were just another part of our experience, but there was a darker storm approaching.

While returning from the pool one afternoon, I sat next to my oldest daughter on the golf cart that would shuttle us back to our hotel when she turned to me and said, “Your stomach is really soft and jiggly.”

Of all the ways I could have responded, I settled on, “That doesn’t make me feel good.”

And it didn’t.

And it didn’t and it didn’t.

You see, from that moment on, I scrutinized my cellulite in the mirrors of the elevator, I ordered the salad instead, I declined dessert.

I was still on vacation. I was still stifling my laughter as my husband attempted to speak the language. I was still holding hands with my children, jumping into the pool together. The sun kept trying to peek through, but that squall was inside me.

I thought about my own mother, a woman whom I had only ever seen as beautiful. As a child, I don’t remember ever intentionally saying anything critical of her looks because I never thought there was anything to criticize. Why did my own children not see me the same way?

“Maybe she just has a different perception of beauty.” My husband’s words, meant to console me, offered no solace. Maybe I’m not a good mother.

Each night, as I dressed for dinner, my husband showered me with compliments, but they couldn’t permeate my own belief that I wasn’t beautiful enough.

She’s right, I told myself. My stomach is soft and jiggly. I am not the best version of myself. I have failed. I am a failure.

Brown writes, “The most dangerous stories we make up are the narratives that diminish our inherent worthiness.” Yet here I was in Mexico, with this story stuck on repeat. I had fallen into this narrative and despite having finished the book, I was not rising strong.

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Had I been home, I likely would have taken to the gym. I would have sat down to write or meditate. I would have engaged in some retail therapy, a little time by myself till those clouds rolled away. Here in Mexico, the maid left chocolate every night by the side of my bed. Every morning I needed to don a bikini again; I hadn’t even packed a cover-up! And the drinks were TWO for ONE for crying out loud.

I could escape neither storm nor story.

Back in the states, I woke the next morning and headed straight to yoga. The following day, I hit the treadmill. Popping in my ear-buds, I scrolled through my podcasts. Knowing I could benefit from something inspirational, I decided on Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations. Two episodes was all it took.

The first episode I listened to was a conversation with Don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements, a book I had read ages ago. Oprah and Ruiz discuss how 95 percent of what we believe is not true, they are stories we tell ourselves, and behind those stories lie our fears—fears that we are not good enough, are not beautiful enough, are not worthy. This sounded familiar—it sounded like Brené Brown.

Don Miguel Ruiz says, “The human is the only animal on earth that pays 1000 times for the same mistake.”

How many times had I beaten myself up over this same story? How many times had I questioned my self-worth because of what I thought I, or someone else, saw in me?

The second episode was a conversation with Michael Singer, author of The Untethered Soul. I haven’t read this book (yet), but here I found the answer to the bigger question: How do I break this cycle?

Singer uses the analogy of a thorn embedded deep in one’s skin, touching a nerve. He says we have two choices: We can live with the thorn and try to avoid all those things in life that disturb it, or we can grab our tweezers and take that thorn out.

In keeping the thorn in, we not only alter how we live our lives, we also train everyone around us so they don’t ever touch that thorn. That’s what I was doing, wasn’t I? Through my reaction and my behavior, I was training my family that this was a thorn not to be touched.

On the contrary, if we remove the thorn, we don’t ever have to deal with it again. We can start to enjoy life, and that, Singer says, is spirituality.

Whoa.

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Oprah asks, “How do you know what your thorn is?”

Singer’s answer: “Disturbance tells you. Just like pain happens outside, disturbance happens inside.”

Singer claims that the moment something disturbs you, if you don’t let it pass right through you, the energy of it will drag you down. “When a problem shows up with that chitter-chatter in your mind, the first reaction must be to lean away from it.”

Ruiz believes, “forgiveness is the most important thing.” Oprah explains that by forgiveness, he means to “let it go; do not be tied to the past.” While my daughter had apologized, I didn’t need to forgive her, I needed to forgive myself.

My daughter’s words to me were not what hurt me, nor did she intend to hurt me. My daughter’s words disturbed my thorn, a thorn that I have carried around with me for a long, long time. But in that moment, I had a choice, and I chose to take it personally when I should have chosen forgiveness.

The second of the four agreements is Don’t Take Anything Personally. When we take something personally, it “is the maximum expression of selfishness because we make the assumption that everything then is about me.” Mexico wasn’t supposed to be about me. Mexico was supposed to be about us. I was making it about me.

If I could go back to that moment when my daughter turned to me and said, “Your stomach is really soft and jiggly,” I would lean far, far away from my discomfort—even if that meant falling off the damn golf cart. I don’t want another internal storm to cloud an otherwise amazing family vacation. Yet maybe this storm was necessary in realizing what needed to be washed clean.

I’ve since ordered a copy of The Untethered Soul. I plan to turn the pages with my tweezers in hand.

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