My mom, the public health nurse talked to me about sexual harassment from the time I started middle school, plainly stating its definition and harshly stating its wrong. She told me stories about the old days at University Hospital when male doctors thought they could do whatever they wanted to and with “their” nurses. It was the season of Anita Hill’s Senate Judiciary hearings, where Clarence Thomas, awaiting confirmation to the Supreme Court stood accused, and it seemed the term “sexual harassment” was repeated on every TV and radio station every hour on the hour. My mom seized this opportunity to educate me not only about how to spot it, but the gender power differential that exists in society, making it politically difficult for women to report abuse, and even more difficult for their claims to be believed. She wanted me, as an eleven year-old, to understand my rights, and how to assert them. You have to be assertive, she often reminded me.
Assertive meant walking with purpose on my way home from school. Assertive meant walking into a business and asking for help if I felt threatened on the street. It meant scanning the environment for trustworthy people, my gut my guide, and surrounding myself with them. Assertive meant “see something, say something”. It meant saying no and exiting, reporting. It meant you did not put up and shut up in a situation that felt wrong. It meant you stepped forward and told.
We believed Anita.
When I was 23 I took a job at a public high school in Phoenix, providing classroom support to non-native speaking kids, English immersion the educational philosophy. Our department was made up of seven women, all of whom were over 40, most of whom were over 50. New in town, I was searching for friends, and had more luck with the students, enjoying their sarcastic banter. When I was assigned to Tom’s (name changed) sixth period freshman biology class, I was psyched to be paired with a teacher close to my age at 25. He was clearly the hot young male teacher, the guy the girls crushed on and the boys wanted to be bros with. And since I was sort of his female equal, we enjoyed the cachet of teacher popularity. Yes, I was uncool in high school.
The key difference between Tom and me is that when a 16 year-old tried hitting on me I rolled my eyes, pantomimed vomiting, and waved him away, hoping to embarrass him in front of his peers and draw a firm boundary. It worked like a charm. I’d grown up in the Mary Kay Letourneau era and region of the country, and there was no way I was going down like that. Tom, however, ate that shit up. Flocks of teenage girls surrounded him in the hallways, stationing themselves in his classroom during breaks, whispering in his ears, draping themselves on him. At football games you couldn’t get near him, the immediate bleachers packed with kids of both genders wanting to bask in the glory of Tom. It was kind of gross.
I asked him later if it drove him nuts to have students on him all the time, never a moment to himself. Nah, he didn’t mind. The kids were cool. And so was he, so it was all good. He was a local boy, had attended a rival high school, where he was a football player. I can only assume it was natural for him to be the center of attention of adoration. At 25 he’d secured his spot as the cool teacher, the natural next level. While I was young enough to enjoy the affections of our students (being clique-less and an unwilling lone wolf during my own high school years, I found their attention healing), I understood I couldn’t hang out with them. Couldn’t do more than leverage their positive regard to help their learning, and shouldn’t.
One afternoon the sixth period freshman were taking a midterm, and the room was silent, save for the flipping of pages as they sought answers in their textbooks (Arizona has a notoriously lacking public education system). Tom and I sat quietly at the front, watching. At one point I mouthed I’m bored to him. Drawing near he whispered, you’re horny? He waggled his eyebrows, a little smirk on his face. Tell me more, he whispered in my ear, drawing back to watch my face, eyes burning.
My heart starting racing, a cold sweat pricking through my pores as a shiver of revulsion went down my spine. This was sexual harassment, and Tom had chosen an opportune time to pounce–the social pressure of the quiet room, the test, the diversion of the students’ attention. He had the upper hand, knowing I would have to make a scene to escape, and counting on my unwillingness to do so. He figured wrong. I walked right out of the room, into the open-air hallway, and took a lap. I had to report him. But he was my only friend on staff. It wouldn’t be “cool” to get him in trouble. But I had to report him. Not just for me, but for the girls, the ones who sidled up to him, seeking his attention, his affection. If he was comfortable making sexual innuendo to me in front of thirty of our students, what, exactly was he capable of alone with one of our girls? I had to report him.
I went straight to my department head. I told. She stood up from her desk, eyes blazing, directing me to the principal’s office. We walked down to the front office with purpose, we have a situation here, get the fuck out of our way. The principal ushered us into her office and closed the door. My boss at my side, the principal leaning in toward me, I reported Tom. They took me seriously. I told them about Tom’s cult figure status among the students, my concerns about his behavior with our young women, the behavior he was modeling for our young men. The principal took notes. She put in a call to the school district. The two women asked me if I was OK and offered to remove me from Tom’s classroom for the remainder of the school year. Yes, please. They asked me if I still felt comfortable coming to work with Tom on staff. They explained the process for handling sexual harassment, the district’s policies. The final bell rang while we were meeting, and they had one of our male security guards walk me to my car. I felt protected. I felt empowered. I felt assertive.
I called my mom. I told. She listened quietly, taking me seriously. She was proud of me, she said, for reporting Tom. Not only because I was asserting my own rights, protecting myself, but because by reporting him, I was helping to make him a safer teacher. Tom’s lack of boundaries with our students could lead to disaster–student abuse and career ruination. This was an opportunity for him to learn an important lesson, clean up his act and become a trustworthy educator. She urged me to see myself as a person who was engendering critical systemic change, and to take pride in this accomplishment. She applauded me for trusting my gut, leaving the situation and asking for help.I had done the right thing.
Of course, back at school the awkwardness was difficult to bear. I panicked at the thought of running into Tom, what he might say, the looks he might give me. I struggled with feeling uncool, as though I’d broken some sort of covenant between the popular kids, my social status on the line. We were young. I’d only been out of high school five years myself, the and the existential struggles of the teen years lingered. I found myself anxiously searching the parking lot for Tom’s vintage VW sports car, scanning the breezeways for his figure. I avoided his classroom like the plague, telling our students I had to switch classes to help out elsewhere, when they invariably asked where I’d gone.
I noticed Tom’s classroom door stayed propped open at all times. He wasn’t at the football games anymore. On chance sightings, I saw he walked alone, no longer the center of a gang of students clamoring for his attention. I wondered if he was starting to take himself more seriously. I knew from the principal that he had been taken through the district’s process, had been written up for sexual harassment. I both hoped he didn’t hate me and that he had had the hammer dropped on him, because he deserved it. I worried about retaliation.
No retaliation came. Tom and I never exchanged a word again, save for a polite nod when passing in the halls. The next school year found me a full time graduate student, my career as a student teacher a thing of the past. Clarence Thomas made it onto the Supreme Court despite planting pubic hairs on cans of Coke in the office, and Tom faded into memory.