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…”
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.