What I learned about sexual harassment in middle school.
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Being chased against my will in elementary school was initially pretty harmless in the grand scheme.
Even though my feelings were hurt because my teacher didn’t stand up for me when I asked for help, that classmate left after third grade. So, I had two years of respite to enjoy my recess freedom.
However, he was back in my life when all the former fifth-graders from Franklin County were dumped into the same sixth grade. And, no exaggeration, he was grosser than ever.
We ended up in one of our first classes together, unlucky me. And at that age, his behavior led to trouble, after which we both learned a lesson about sexual harassment.
Warning: this story contains some mature and immature language.
Not long into my sixth grade school year, my friends told me at lunch one day that they’d overheard the boy say something they knew wasn’t true.
He’d descriptively told other students I’d given him a “blow job” on the school bus. And two of my good friends had heard him saying this in separate, apparently loud, conversations.
The horror didn’t set in because I was a little sheltered. So, I had zero clue what that was then. I pictured a blowout like I was a hairdresser blow-drying his hair — and on a school bus. I laughingly wondered why he would tell people that.
I didn’t erupt into furious tears, which probably showed my friends that I was clueless. One helped me understand by saying something close to, “He said you put his thing in your mouth.”
That description induced the more proper reaction of heart-pounding panic and sobbing. My friends tried to reassure me by telling me everyone knew he was a liar, but I was already sliding down a slippery slope.
First of all. I was still wearing cartoon characters on my shirts and playing with Barbies when I got home from sixth grade. I was painfully shy and a little immature, as I had just turned 11 when I faced this scenario.
Furthermore, to add factual support to my denial, this boy and I didn’t even ride the same bus. And two of my brothers rode mine, so not just no, but heck no, it didn’t happen.
Finally, and most importantly, I would have built a giant toilet to flush him down sooner than let him get his “thing” near me.
Unfortunately, even though most people who heard the lie probably knew he was a liar, I was trying to guess how many classmates in my new school thought I’d done it. And then I imagined how they must have pictured me.
After getting ill and crying, alone and embarrassed in a bathroom stall for a bit, I sulked to the office and called my mom to come and get me. But I had to tell her the hard-to-say, very embarrassing truth of why.
I don’t remember precisely how this action came about, but I talked to the vice principal, who was firmly on my side. It was one of my most crucial early life conversations. But I wanted to melt into a puddle and disappear forever during it.
We discussed what was said and how it made me feel powerless over my identity, not in those words. I explained that I was disgusted by the lie and thought other kids who heard it would believe it and be disgusted by me.
The vice principal asked if I had ever heard of sexual harassment, which I had, but not in a way I understood. So, he explained it and told me that spreading nasty, hurtful lies and rumors is one example.
The gist of his lesson was more significant than addressing that my classmate lied and shouldn’t have. I struggled with being portrayed as a sexual being before I was ready.
He said it was my choice regardless of what anyone else told me. And he emphasized that it was an important one. He promised to defend me, and he did.
After our talk, the boy also had to come in for a meeting with the vice principal, after which he apologized and claimed he was just trying to be funny. But seeing him finally get his comeuppance when he received an in-school suspension became the only punchline in the scenario.
More importantly, and most thankfully, he never really bothered me again. I haven’t seen him since middle school.
After a few decades, these are just unpleasant moments of embarrassment from my pretty happy childhood. But as other memories fade, they remain painfully bright for the worry they caused and the lessons they taught me.
I didn’t have the depth then to wonder what would have changed if my third-grade teacher had done more to address my classmate’s behavior toward me. It doesn’t really matter but it’s something I ask now.
Instead, I coped by leaning hard into the “girls rule, boys drool” movement for several years to protest being objectified.
Maybe nothing would have been different if she had intervened on my behalf and told a younger him, specifically, “Keep your hands to yourself” (like we were told all day, every day, otherwise) or “No means no,” another pertinent phrase.
In the end, I’m confident she let us both down — him more in a falling domino-like way. He debatably had her to thank for his fairly immediate suspension after arriving at middle school. And I deduced from how he behaved after that suspension that he didn’t want it and didn’t enjoy it.
I might have mentioned in my first essay on this subject that I’m not holding grudges, just unboxing memories. But, after all this time, I still think my middle school vice principal was pretty legendary, even if I hated learning the lesson he had to teach.
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