I woke up Monday morning to a Facebook feed, like many others, flooded with #MeToo. Women, mostly, are exposing the reality of how many of us have been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted. We are filling the conversational airwaves in a way we’ve often been told is unacceptable, unfair, unladylike. This is, of course, exactly why we should do it.
But this morning the torrent of “Me Too’s” didn’t feel like enough to me, as I lay in bed and skimmed my feed. It is one thing to be a social media activist in a movement that will no doubt crest and pass. It is much larger, though, to reflect on the moments when you actually stood by those of us who said “Me too” and took us at our word.
When I was 15 years old, both painfully aware of the womanliness of my body and blissfully unaware that anyone might find it sexual, I was sexually harassed by a group of five boys. It was during summer school, and I was the only girl in the class. I was also the only one who had chosen to be there — I hadn't failed but I desperately wanted to move up, into the advanced math strand. I had transferred to this upscale independent school as a ninth grader, while most students had attended since kindergarten, and I had managed to make it quietly through my first year. I had made friends, and while I wasn’t popular, I was liked enough. I had no ambition to become a Mean Girl. I just wanted to have friends, get good grades and be liked enough to be left out of the gossip. By this standard, ninth grade had been a great success.
He stared at me, looking for some sign of interest ... but my face had become blotchy with shame, wet with tears, clouded with confusion.
It all changed that summer. The Spanish teacher, who was covering summer school geometry, was rarely in the room. He’d pass out worksheets and disappear for 30 minutes. The only girl with five boys, I kept my head down, my eyes on my worksheets and held the promise of an advanced math class in the fall. Each time the teacher left, I felt my stomach stiffen. The boys' conversations grew filthier by the day.
It started innocuously: Fifteen-year-old boys swapping stories of kissing and other sexual encounters that they may or may not have had. They were one-upping each other and I stayed out of it. Each day I moved my desk further away, until I sat as far from them as I possibly could. But one day, it clicked for the most popular guy in our grade, that here was a girl alone with them and no adult in sight.
“I can tell,” he boasted to our classmates, “how many fingers I can fit inside a girl just by looking at her.” The boys laughed. “A girl’s face, the way she acts, it tells you how much she will take.” Looking back, I realize that this 15 year-old-boy already knew what power his words and his body could have over mine. He had learned far more about power and violence than I had of geometry or my own body.
My stomach plunged. I wanted to leave the room right then, but exiting meant crossing in front of their desks. I wanted some barrier to show them that I was there only to work. The boy went on, of course, to tell the others what he thought he could do to me. He stared at me, looking for some sign of interest, I suppose, but my face had become blotchy with shame, wet with tears, clouded with confusion. I didn’t fully understand what he meant but he kept talking.
I walked into school each day feeling ashamed, that somehow my decision to report him meant that I was truly the one at fault.
The hardest part of this wasn’t telling an adult: My older sister, Nora, coaxed it out of me as I sobbed into the phone. It wasn’t even learning that I would have to face him again, although that was difficult and caused me great anxiety. (He was expelled from summer school, but given “one more chance” in the fall to prove he belonged at the school he had attended for far longer than I had.)
It was the talk, the rumors, that came from both his friends and the rest of the popular kids. They were angry with me because I had said something. Some classmates didn’t want to speak to me, some casually stated that they’d rather “not take a side” and others felt that I had taken words out of context. None of them had witnessed that day, or those weeks before in the stifling classroom. That next school year, I walked into school each day feeling ashamed, that somehow my decision to report him meant that I was truly the one at fault.
These days, I’m a high school teacher myself. I never leave a class unattended, or make a student work in a group with others who have wronged him or her. But more than that, I am trying to do what was not done for me: teach all of my students that violent language is unacceptable, that blind loyalty in friendships has its limits and that even “not taking a side” can be, in fact, standing against a victim. As we fill our news feeds and our working lives with opportunities to do better by each other, I want to say to that boy what I wish I had said then, and still dream in my nightmares: “Shut up. We have so much more work to do.”