I’m writing this post because I’m angry. I’m angry on behalf of a 12 year old girl. That girl, once upon a time, was me.
Let me describe something that happened to me in junior high. I was at an assembly and the entire student body was packed sardine-like into bleachers. I, and a few of my friends, were seated in front of a small group of boys in our gym class. One of the boys started to pull out pieces of my hair, strand by strand. He started to snap my bra, over and over. At one point, he unhooked my bra through my shirt. He reached into the back of my pants and started pulling on my underwear. This went on for the entire assembly, despite constantly telling him to stop. After the assembly, I approached the PE teacher who was supposed to be watching our section. Mrs. L. She said she could see what was going on. I asked her why she didn’t do anything and she just shrugged. This kind of behavior escalated, under her watch, throughout the school year. The message I got from Mrs. L’s continued inaction was that if a boy harassed me, I should just shut up about it because I probably deserved it.
NOW. I should say that what prompted me to write this is not because I want to whine about a bad time I had in school. These were stupid boys acting the way stupid boys do. I’m not excusing their behavior but I forgave them for it a long time ago. I moved on from it and went on to be a happy adult. But the fact remains: I spent the better part of a year living in fear of coming in contact with those boys. As an adult, I can think of many different things that I could have/should have done. As a 12 year old girl, I felt powerless to say anything about it and expect results.
I am now an adult who now has nieces that age. While I’m hopeful that we, as a people, will have evolved beyond the mindset that boys will be boys, I’m fearful for them. They will come into contact with difficult people and situations. They will have people attempt to mistreat them. And I hope that they are growing into women who feel that they can stand up for themselves and for others. The adults in their lives owe it to them to change the narrative about what is expected of women and how women are seen. I, for one, am going to redouble my efforts to be a positive presence in their lives and advocate for the fact that they have the power to occupy whatever space in life they choose.
I have to think about the It Was Never A Dress meme that has made the rounds. It was the brainchild of Axosoft, a software development firm who described the project thusly:
#ItWasNeverADress is an invitation to shift perceptions and assumptions about women and the audacious, sensitive, and powerful gestures they make every single day. In science, technology, arts, mathematics, politics, houses of worship, on the streets, and in our homes, insightful women are often uninvited, overlooked, or just plain dismissed. Through storytelling, community building, innovation and creative disruptions, #ItWasNeverADress will foster necessary conversations, vital voices, and images from around the world that honor ALL women. When we see women differently… we see the world differently!
Wow. What a difference from the PE teacher who just shrugged when questioned about a girl’s need for advocacy. This got me all fired up and a flurry of what ifs went through my head. What if Mrs. L had reacted differently? What if I had reacted differently? What if I take this experience, continue to learn from it, and use it to advocate for young adults? What if that helps awesome kids become even more awesome adults?
Now, 25 years later, I think it is about time to claim my cape, put it on, and fly. And, while I’m at it, it is time to start thinking about helping the young women in my life find theirs. The meme had it right. It was never a dress.
As a PS, I did attempt to reach out to the teacher in question and have a conversation about this. She retired some years ago and I was unable to locate her. So if there is any lemonade to be made from that lemon of a childhood tale, it is this: Mrs. L, I grew up to be a woman who will stand up for myself, and for girls and women. I will stand up for my nieces and yours. And this is not because of you. This is in spite of you.