Stand and Speak

As my friends know, this summer has been a long, hot one for me—and not just because I live in the Ohio Valley.

In early June, I received word that my former teacher had been fired from the school he’d been at since he’d left my high school in 2012. From what I understand, he was terminated because he’d lied about why he’d left his previous job. According to the rumor mill, he’d left my school because he’d been accused of sexual harassment by several students. At the time, I knew he’d left a prior job under similar circumstances. Now, in 2020, that’s three schools he’s left or been fired from for the way he talks to students (and, possibly, his relationship with a few).

This isn’t an easy bit of news for me to receive because, while I witnessed him cross the line several times verbally and my former high school friends have shared they’ve been sexually involved with him after graduation, this teacher was like a family member to me. He made sure I had what I needed as a student, but also as a person, ensuring I received food and medical care when I needed it. In a lot of ways, I’ve told myself that while I may morally disagree with him, that doesn’t make him a bad person.

But since I’ve embraced the part of my past that dictates I’m a survivor of sexual assault, I see him differently.

I wasn’t assaulted violently in an alley by a stranger. I wasn’t assaulted in a way that completely took me by surprise. I was abused for months by a man (not my teacher) I trusted, and it was only in retrospect that I understood it was abuse. Then, at senior prom in 2014, my date attempted to rape me—I barely got away at the last second. My date was someone I’d been friends with since the end of my freshman year. I knew that was assault, but what did I do with that information? I got away, and there was minimal evidence on me—if any—so what could I report? So I reported nothing.

Now, I realize that what happens—and what doesn’t happen—and which words we use to describe these things matter.

For years, I’ve said that it’s good to say what you mean and mean what you say, and when it comes to abuse of any kind and assault, there is nothing wrong with being explicit. There is nothing wrong with stating boldly exactly what happened and how it made you feel. There is nothing wrong with using words that express your anger, or your pain, or your confusion. Additionally, there is no rulebook that states when you should say what or how you should say it. You don’t have to start at the beginning, or the end, or by stating what you want to see happen or what you wish had happened instead. Speaking up in some way is all that matters.

As a society, I know we like to say that it’s okay if we never speak up. As a survivor, I understand the struggle in finding my voice in order to speak up.

But also as a survivor, I feel that we need to remember that when we keep our mouths shut about our experiences or what we witness happen to others, we are doing all the people who will follow in our footsteps a disservice. And I think it’s okay to take some time to find that inner strength to speak up.

But as I hear stories of what’s unfolding at my former teacher’s latest school, I’m sickened. All I keep thinking is that I should’ve been far louder, more proactive, and bothered administration about investigating him. I reported this teacher once, and the principal at the time did very little about it. Why? I’ll never know.

But now, this teacher has been at a new school for seven classes worth of students. It’s a much bigger school than the one I attended, so I assume he had more students there.

How many of them did he harass?

How many did he sleep with?

How many were groomed to his liking, so that by the time they graduated and they wouldn’t be breaking any rules, they were able to slide into his bed where a girl from the previous class just vacated?

The words I used back then were facts, stating what I’d seen happen. But I should’ve also used words to express my feelings: his statements about girls’ bodies made me feel inadequate, his frequent use of innuendo confused me because I didn’t know a lot about sex at sixteen years old, and his annual bedding of one of my friends made me feel like I had a big “I’m next, aren’t I?” neon sign over my head.

Even now, I feel like an object in the eyes of men, and I’m confused about how men in positions of power view their subordinates. I wonder just how I managed to escape his advances, if tradition were to hold. If he hadn’t left my school during my junior year, would he have started trying to get me into his bed my senior year? When I graduated? Or was he already trying all along, I was just unaware because I didn’t understand sex or recognize predatory behavior?

Or is it possible that I really was different to him, that I mattered like a family member to him, the same way I viewed him as an uncle, one for whom I bought Father’s Day presents?

I realize now that I shouldn’t be left with so many questions about someone who I should’ve been able to trust. Until now, I never really understood that line from the film Freedom Writers (2007), when Andre tells Ms. Gruwell, “Why should I give you my respect to you? Because you’re a teacher? I don’t know you. How do I know you’re not a liar standing up there? How do I know you’re not a bad person standing up there? I’m not just gonna give you my respect because you’re called a teacher.”

I’ve always been skeptical of authority, but now…I realize that just because someone carries a badge or has a license in something or is in a position of trusted authority, that doesn’t mean they’re worthy of my trust, either as their student or as the parent of their student.

Because now that I’m a mother, I see all these men who I trusted and who abused that trust so much differently.

I deserved better than what they gave, and I deserved better than the way the powers that were handled the situation when I cried “Wolf!” while providing pictures of the damn wolf.

All of us survivors deserve better than we received.

Likewise, all of the people who have yet to set foot on this path deserve better than the society we currently live in.

So what do we do? What can we do about it?

I don’t have that answer. Each situation is unique, but we all have one thing in common: we can all communicate, whether that’s with words or sign language or writing. And as long as we find a way to use those words, either to help bring charges against our abuser/attacker or to heal ourselves so that we can use our experiences to help others, then we’re doing something.

When we were being abused and attacked, all we had to do was survive. We did whatever it took, accepted whatever we had to in order to persevere. And now that we’re on the other side of it, I think it’s our duty to make the world a little easier for those who are still trying to survive. After all, isn’t that what we wanted?

Finally, to all the educators, lawyers, and policymakers who have the power to protect us when something does happen, it’s your duty to listen to the words we use, even if they’re messy, jumbled, and overwrought with emotion. It’s your job to hear our truth, rather than embrace your own preconceived notions. And once you’ve heard us, it’s your job to do something with our words to prevent the same tale from having to be told again, and again, and again.

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