This is my story. I don’t speak for all women. Or all white women. Or other people whose experiences of oppression I can never understand. Or all Democrats. Or all Hillary voters. Or all Missourians. Or all Prius owners, if you want to get that specific.
After the week we’ve had on Facebook, it feels necessary to say all that up front.
(Oh, and Mom: There’s some language in here. I think this time you’ll find it justified. Sometimes pretty girls do talk like this.)
(And I feel like I should note: I am okay.)
GOOD! Now that’s out of the way—let’s get to my story.
This week I’ve cycled through so many emotions, but I was surprised to find that one I kept returning to was shame.
Some memories came back to me that I let go of a long time ago. And I’ve felt……… Triggered.
(uuuuuuugh. I hate that I feel compelled to say this, but fine. My two cents: Sure, like anything else in this world, taken to its most absurd extreme, trigger warnings and political correctness sometimes have negative consequences. Outright avoidance of all contrary, unpleasant or challenging views is unhealthy of course. But it’s also possible for events/words/situations to prompt unpleasant or damaging reactions in you that might not occur in someone else. This is not an emotional phenomenon exclusive to overly sensitive liberal arts students who’ve been coddled too much. It’s part of being human, this messy having-feelings thing, like it or not. So is triggering.)
I was triggered by triggering. LOOK WHAT YOU’VE DONE, TROLLS.
Therapy has taught me to question my emotions. To face them but not always take them at face value. Instead of accepting everything I think or feel as 100% The Way Things Are.
This seems like a healthy practice for all of us to remember right now.
So, back to the story:
When I was in kindergarten, this boy in my class gave me a ring. (Let’s call him “TH,” for reasons you’ll see soon enough.) It was very sweet. I remember the plastic supermarket-quarter-machine container and the woozy feeling accompanying this transaction. I didn’t like-like this boy; he was kind of a loudmouth bully and not very smart, but I appreciated the gesture. (Oh, I know. For sure I’m projecting here. Indulge me.)
Somebody spent a whole quarter on me. This was a big deal. Not quite keeping with the 3 Month’s Allowance tradition for declarative jewelry, but still.
When I got home, my mom had reservations about little boys giving little girls rings in kindergarten. Too soon for such things, right? First rings, then hickeys, then unwanted pregnancies. So goes the way of sin. (Oh, I know. I’m exaggerating there.)
Now I see her point: 6-year-olds have no business fiddling with romantic love. It’s far too complicated. Looking back, I think 26 feels like a nice age to start. Get a bachelor’s degree and build up some credit before you start dating.
I’d end up taking this “little boys and little girls shouldn’t do certain things” notion with me all the way to my mid-20s. “Oh look. A boy. What’s he up to? Probably no good. Byeeee!”
There it is: Shame.
I was in 4th grade when this same kid assaulted me. Whoa hold up! This took an abrupt turn! Sorry. But that’s how this sort of thing generally goes, I think. Catches you off guard.
I wouldn’t have called what happened to me “assault” at the time. Even now, it feels odd. I don’t remember, but I imagine I called it “grab.” As in: He grabbed me.
(Oh look! One thing our president elect and I can agree upon: The use of that verb to describe the inexcusable. There really IS common ground, if you look hard enough! Neat!)
I was 10. I don’t think any of us even wore bras yet. I for sure had no idea what sex actually was—though we told plenty of jokes about it on the playground. (On Blueberry Hill: Anybody?!) And I’d certainly experienced nothing anywhere near second base. Maybe some tentative hand-holding.
Weirder still, this happened to me in the middle of class. Not in some a dark corner or remote area of the playground. Just sitting at my desk next to this kid, as I had in many a class—his “H” going just before my “J” in the alphabetical chart.
I didn’t do anything besides tell him to stop. No actually, I think I socked him in the arm eventually—because this happened multiple times. But I was too shocked and freaked out and embarrassed to do anything more.
Nobody else said anything either, though some noticed. There were some laughs. Kids enjoy shenanigans like that at others’ expense, after all. (Oh you don’t remember? Kids are TERRIBLE to each other.) Moments like this even have a cute little nickname: “Titty twisters” — you know, just locker room talk.
Most kids didn’t seem to notice—or, I’m realizing 20+ years later, maybe they did, but they didn’t know what to say. That happens too.
My teacher was even in the room. We were having some sort of silent reading or busy-work time to close out the day. She was up at her desk in the front of the class, head down, doing whatever teachers do. (Doodling “I hate these kids, this job is the worst,” would be my best guess. Teachers, y’all are special souls to put up with such TERRIBLE people.)
The ruckus never got loud enough to merit her attention, and I didn’t know what to do. So nothing happened, besides it being time to go home eventually.
I remember shuffling to the back of the room to retrieve our backpacks from our hooks and cubbies. (Small insight into why some women are so angry about the patriarchy’s generally nonchalant attitude toward sexual assault: Because it happens all the time, no doubt to many women/men you know, and you can get sexually harassed by your peers as early as the age of fucking HOOKS AND CUBBIES. Come onnnnnnn.)
This other boy I’d liked throughout elementary school—my “boyfriend” too many times to count, in the most innocent sense—was the opposite of TH in every way. GH was taller and better looking (burn) and smart and sensitive and funny. He was also not aggressive. But he tried to stand up for me. I remember he semi-sternly confronted TH with the kind of awkward shove only a sweet nonconfrontational little boy can give. And he looked me in the eye, and I felt his eyes tell me, “I tried.” And I felt so grateful I could cry.
Kids don’t know how to handle something like that. And really, neither do adults. A presidential candidate says (or jokes? …TRICKED YA! Doesn’t really matter if he was joking) that he can “grab ‘em by the pussy” and people don’t know how to react: We laugh. We ignore. We try to pretend it didn’t happen. Or we try to do something about it—even if it’s too late or not enough. Something is better than nothing.
More Garys in this world, please. And fewer Todds. (Oops. Real names. I don’t know what Todd is up to these days. I don’t know if he’s on facebook. I don’t know if he’s alive. I plan to keep it that way.)
I remember other things: I was wearing a turtleneck (because 1994…of course I was) with horizontal stripes (hello…some things never change), in bright pink and yellow and purple and orange. I probably liked it because it reminded me of Lisa Frank.
I can’t remember if I ever wore it again.
After school, I couldn’t say out loud to my mom what had happened to me that day. I was upset, but I didn’t want to talk about it. (There it is again: Shame.)
Eventually I told her by writing it down on a piece of notepad paper. (So me, you guys.)
Morbidly hilarious to me, in hindsight: I’m pretty sure she couldn’t read my handwriting so I still had to say it out loud. I don’t remember exactly how I phrased it, but I remember feeling bad about what happened and having to talk about it. Double shame.
I also remember my brother—a sophomore in high school then—getting angry on my behalf.
“So he touched you?” he asked, his tone conveying that he wanted to get the details right before he did anything drastic. This protective, provoked moment is still vivid in my mind. Like Gary’s eyes.
What happened next I’m not so sure on. But you know what they say: Hell hath no fury like an older brother going after a Todd.
I wasn’t there when retribution took place, but I imagine it involved Daniel striding into the 4th grade hallway and finding the loud, chubby kid with the clammy hands. Then lifting him up so his feet couldn’t touch the ground, and shoving him against the lockers, so hard his head went dizzy for a minute, then saying what one says in this situation, “If you EVER touch my sister again…” etc, etc. I’m only today enjoying the fact that the “etc” part surely included some terribly irresponsible and maniacal threats that only a 16-year-old older brother can produce.
I remember Todd was shaken up that day. I never talked to him about it.
And he never touched me again.
But one more thing: (and this is where the story gets a little too on-the-nose, but is totally true, I promise). When we were in high school, Todd wore a KKK shirt to school one day. A t-shirt with a straight-up cartoon Klan hood on it, unmistakably front and center. He wore this shirt like that’s a thing you just do. Blows my mind. There weren’t any non-white students in Sparta then—not that this makes it any better, obviously. And I was offended anyway. It still makes my blood pressure rise to think about.
I think eventually he was told to turn it inside out or go home or something. But I remember this took a while. Like, a-few-classes a while. Longer than it should have. Multiple students and teachers saw him before something was done about it.
I don’t remember what I did…I’d like to hope I told some trusted teacher about it, but those memories are gone. I don’t think I confronted him (see lifelong traumatizing event above for possible reasons why), but I never ever even a little bit forgot. Or felt okay about it.
And this week, all of those not-okay feelings came back. The kindergarten confusion. The 4th grade shame. The high school anger and disbelief. And I still don’t know what to do.
What are we gonna do? We’re all feeling a lot of things, and we get to decide how we handle those feelings.
We laugh. We ignore. Or we try to do something about it.