When I was in seventh grade, there was a teacher at my school who was the father of a good friend. I knew him very well, having stayed overnight at their modest house and seen how he worked two full-time jobs on opposite shifts from his wife so they could support their family. He came home while she was sleeping from her swing shift job; his wife then woke up for the family dinner. Although we had to be quiet in the house during the day, I liked it because we weren’t forced to eat salad with dinner, and we could potentially wolf down our food and be excused before everyone else was finished eating. After dinner, he got a few hours of sleep before going to his second job. Then, he returned early in the morning to shower and leave for the school day. He was still in his early thirties at the time, having had children and gotten married very early in life. He had a warm southwestern twang to his voice, and a way of describing concepts that made them easy to understand, but he always looked somewhat tired and had a world-weary cast to his face. We would sometimes talk about school and other issues as he drove, but on these trips I would mostly just look out the window of his old Pinto, watching the world go by amid my mounting anxiety as we got closer to the school.
Junior high, for me, was an anxious time. It was a never-ending flow of hormones and frustration. Walking down the halls of the school, I was totally unable to stop myself from noticing every girl that passed by. It was their scent, the wind of their passage, or just the fact that they existed. It had a soporific effect, fuzzing out my ability to focus on much else. Of course, I was not able to do anything about it, because I knew in my soul that these girls were above such things, and would have never noticed me unless I was literally on fire. All of my classes were filled with furtive glances and strategizing about how to be placed in a group with one of these girls so they might be compelled to speak to me about some assignment or another. When I was in this guy’s class, there were two girls I had known for a few years. I had actually totally missed a blatant request that I become her boyfriend from one of them. (I only figured out what she was asking several years later and literally smacked myself on the forehead while driving because of it.) The other one had been vaguely rumored to have gotten backstage at a concert by doing something sexual with a security guard. She appeared to me to be adult beyond her years, but in a heavy-metal rocker chick kind of way. We were about fourteen.
The thing was, neither of these girls ever seemed to do any homework or assignments, and one of them was said to have been earning extra credit by working as a teacher’s assistant for the class. But both received an A grade, though they weren’t particularly studious. At the time, this seemed fishy to me, and when I asked my friend’s father if he needed anyone else to be a TA, he looked at me strangely and said that he didn’t. I thought about this and also a few other weird things he had said around that time, like encouraging us when we quietly ogled a girl a little older than we were from the car, saying we were good red-blooded boys. But it did not really form into anything like a full picture because I was an oblivious teenager to whom girls were a cloudy mystery and anything related to them was a minefield of possible missteps that could lead to total rejection.
When I was in high school, I heard that he had moved to another school to teach – I assumed because it was closer to his house. There was another teacher from my high school who left mid-year under a cloud because he had been reported as having ongoing sexual relationships with two students, one of whom had reported him to the school after finding out about the other. I did not connect the two things in my mind, but later, I wondered what would have been worse—the fact that he was betraying and lying to two friends about what they meant to him and toying with their emotions, or betraying his wife and family for sex with attractive young girls. I figured he was not necessarily going to lose his job because the girls were eighteen, but I assumed there were rules about such things that would make it uncomfortable for him to stay at this school. As to the girls, I assumed the sex was consensual, but the way they had been treated was not. They both transferred to other schools. I never saw them again. When mean conversations about what happened sprung up, I did not join in. It was like a really bad afters chool special to me: “How They Ruined Their Lives…” There was so much I did not yet understand about people and power and manipulation.
I got a BA in Creative Writing in college, and decided to become a teacher myself. On the admission questionnaire, I was asked to describe two teachers that had inspired me. I put down a high school English teacher who had inspired me to continue writing. He had a very Mr. Rogers-type of vibe. The other one I put down was my friend’s father. I felt good writing down that they were role models for the kind of teacher I wanted to be.
Fast forward to a few years later. I was idly looking for my friend on the Internet, hoping to send him an email. We’d fallen out of touch, and so I decided to use my detective skills to contact him. I searched for his name and under his family’s names, and one of the first hits that came up was a set of articles about his father. I had by this time realized after a few years of teaching that the unconscionably low wages paid to teachers was not nearly enough money for my wife and I to consider having children in San Francisco where we lived. So, I had left the profession and moved back into working for the man, as they say. I loved teaching, but I had always wondered how he could have kept at it so long with all of the difficulties involved. I opened the first link.
Then, I read the articles.
They described how he had pled guilty to a very reduced misdemeanor charge and given up his teaching credentials after being accused of molestation and worse against more than nine girls at the new school to which he had transferred. He said he was pleading guilty and giving up his license to make sure he didn’t put his family through any more court proceedings.
I was stunned. I sat in front of the screen, mouth agape, blinking like a cartoon character. I was alone in the house, but I said “WHAAAAAAAAAAT?” to the walls and the ceiling.
A sudden flood of memories gained more subtext for me, not only of him, but from my own teaching career. I’d mostly taught 12th grade English and Social Studies. I remembered offhand remarks that he’d made that now became a little creepy in hindsight. I also remembered the students in my classes when they were 18 and I was 22. They were my students, and therefore even thinking too hard about their possible attractiveness felt wrong. In fact, it had never been something I would have entertained because I was married and in ever-increasing love with my wife. I felt the skin on the back of my neck and my head get itchy and had a coppery taste in my mouth as I imagined my students as younger girls with a teacher much older. I could picture teacher’s face in detail. I knew that there was a power dynamic there that would have made it actually fairly easy exploit the situation, if that was your aim in the classroom. Especially if you were thought of as the “cool teacher.” My experience in relationships and a wider view of the world had made me realize that the opposite sex were not a mystery. They were real people with complexities and neuroses and virtues and flaws, and they were just as easy to manipulate as anybody else, if you were that type of person. The term “date rape” was pretty new at the time, and having heard it a lot recently, I’d begun to picture such things in my mind as more violent and dramatic and painful than I had previously been able to understand. I tried to remain logical, but the vision of what would have been girls about the age of my students’ younger sisters, dressed in the Dittos corduroy pants and tube tops of my junior high memories, in a dim storage room, with whatever justifications and reassurances and other words of coercion being murmured in their ear as it happened, was disturbing.
I was angry and nauseated. But at the time I read the articles, they were already several years old. I was definitely glad that I had not tried to call him for advice when I was teaching. I thought of him occasionally over the next several years, sometimes when I heard of an incident of a similar kind. I felt grossed out and also somewhat amazed that it was such a common thing, but I also became much less surprised and more frustrated when the only answers given were simple, one-size-fits-all solutions that neither helped the survivor of the abuse, nor made a dent in the number of ensuing occurrences.
During those years, another good friend of mine’s husband, whom I had met, was arrested for doing horrible things with and to the girls he was coaching. Another good friend of mine revealed that she had been molested regularly in school by a teacher and that the administration had known about the teacher’s behavior. It made a significant difference when I could easily put a face with the name, on either side of the equation. I pictured it in more specific flashes, and it made me disgusted and angry. I feel lucky, and also somewhat guilty, that this kind of thing has been peripheral to me personally, while it has been so much more harmful to so many others.
I don’t speak for anyone else, but I have realized this: I understand that for many men, it is uncomfortable to own up to having done anything related to sexual harassment, molestation, rape, or anything in between. I feel embarrassed and somewhat less of a person for what I’ve done in ignorance, or for having not done anything to prevent what I have witnessed, and I feel like there is not a goddamn thing I can do to fix it all at once.
But you know what is probably more uncomfortable? Having any of those things done to you. Having to go to school, or a job, or anywhere with the knowledge that that is what happens there, and you cannot prevent it. So, what I can say is: I believe you. And every day, I try to do it before the fact, rather than after.