A few years ago, I was in front of my 8th grade language arts class introducing the concept of rhythm and meter in poetry to my students, when out of nowhere one of my male students reached over a grabbed the breast of a female student.
In one-eighth of a second I experienced emotions from bewilderment to full-on rage. I was trained to handle discipline discreetly and without “humiliating” anyone, but in this moment I could not have cared less about this little future sex offender. I pointed my entire arm and one rigid finger at the young man and gravely said, “Get out.”
“It’s raining,” he whined. “Where am I supposed to go?” I was teaching in one of our school’s finest portables so if I had to send a student out…well, I didn’t usually, because they would probably hit the sidewalk and head home rather than dutifully report to the principal’s office.
“What?” I asked in disbelief. “I don’t care. Just get out. Get out of my classroom.” And this kid, this fourteen-year old, gathered his stuff and walked out. As he passed me, he seemed genuinely confused. I steeled my Medusa gaze at him and he quickened his pace, walked into the rain, and went somewhere. I didn’t care where.
I looked down at the young lady who had just been victimized in front of her entire class by this guy. There was no good way to handle this situation and protect her in the process. They had been sitting in a group of four, in the front and center of the room. Everyone saw this happen. Not only did this poor girl get her breast grabbed by her desk mate, she got to endure it with over thirty witnesses. And there she was, looking down at her desk like she did something wrong, like she had something to be ashamed of.
I wish to God there had been some way to handle this situation without drawing further attention to her. All the other kids, to their credit, were dead silent. They knew what that boy did was wrong. They knew I was pissed. A few of the boys looked ashamed on behalf of the one I had just kicked out, and four or five girls had that “hold my earrings” look and were probably seconds from charging out the door to collectively beat down the kid while he wandered around in the rain.
“Kinsey,” I said quietly, addressing the girl’s best friend, “why don’t you and Kelly go inside and get some water, maybe talk a little bit? Maybe go see Ms. London?” Kinsey nodded and took the ID badge I handed her so she could unlock the door to the school to get inside, and she and Kelly gathered their things and went outside. I watched through the window as they slogged through the bark dust towards the school. Kinsey was carrying Kelly’s books and Kelly had her head in her hands, bawling.
I stood in front of the class, silently, trying to figure out how to turn this into a “teachable moment.” Because that’s what we do, no matter how bad the situation, we turn it into a “teachable moment.” We rarely just call a shitty situation, a shitty situation.
I cleared my throat. “Ladies,” I began. “If a guy ever touches you somewhere they are not invited to touch, punch them in the face.”
Silence. Then, finally, “But won’t we get in trouble?”
“No,” I said. “If someone grabs a private part of you that they have not been invited to grab, you have every right to punch them in the face. Or kick them in the nuts, if that’s closer. Doesn’t matter if it’s in the middle of class or in a back alley. It’s the same thing. You decide who touches what and when. If an adult writes you a referral or suspends you for a week because you punched a kid that grabbed your breast, make a huge issue of it. Fight it. We’ve taught you that violence is not the way to solve problems your whole life, but that’s not exactly true. It’s usually not the answer. But in this situation, it is.”
The girls were looking newly empowered and some of them were glancing at their hands, balling them into fists. The boys looked intimidated, ashamed. “Hey guys,” I said, “you know what? You didn’t do anything wrong, at least not that I know of.”
“I wish I had said something to him,” one said quietly. “I knew what he was going to do. He was trying to get us to cheer him on. No one did, but we didn’t stop him.”
“I wish I had punched him in the face,” said another boy, looking tersely at the ceiling.
“Welllllll, let’s not go around just punching people in the face willy-nilly,” I jumped in quickly. “I get what you’re feeling, but I don’t think that’s the solution exactly, either.” The kid nodded. I’m positive he still wanted to punch him in the face. I did too. Maybe that isn’t something to advertise, that I, then a 30 year old English teacher, wanted to punch my 14 year student right in his teeth. I already had sort of bastardized the whole “teachable moment” opportunity by calling for violence and opposition to authority.
Here is the thing. Fourteen years old is old enough to know better. The lines of demarcation have been clearly drawn and explained to both boys and girls by the age of fourteen, and there is no confusion as to what may be touched without permission and what should not. Grabbing a girl’s breast, in the middle of class, at age 14, is sexual assault. That girl felt violated in more ways than one by that incident. That is an extremely vulnerable age to make peace with all the changes in your body without someone grabbing you or otherwise. It affects the way you see yourself and it affects the way you interpret intimacy in future relationships.
Which brings me to freaking John Travolta. If a fourteen year old should know better, this 61 year old douche-canoe should definitely be well aware of the rules. But, based on his actions at the Academy Awards of last night, it would happen he is still a little hazy on what is appropriate and what is not. He made the rounds throughout the night molesting his younger colleagues at the Academy Awards, and we, the viewers at home, were forced to watch these ladies attempt to handle the uncomfortable and unwanted touching with ladylike genteelness that made the situation seem less horrifying than it was. And, although both are great actresses, they kinda failed, for which I am extremely grateful. People, perhaps young men most of all, need to see what it looks like when you touch a woman and she does not wish to be touched.
“I’m sorry, is there a hand on my waist? And, oh lord, is he going to kiss me? What the hell is happening here? Maybe if I stand perfectly still he will go away.”
“So that didn’t work. Now his gross puckery lips are actually touching me and he has pulled me in closer! Was my straight ahead statue expression not clear enough? Should I just keep standing here and pretending like this bothers me? Get out of my bubble!”
“Oh! He’s caressing my face! I absolutely hate this, but I’m live on national tv right now so I have to grin and bear this shit. Wait a minute, didn’t Patricia Arquette just make a speech about women’s rights five minutes ago? My lord this is uncomfortable. Maybe if I avoid his gaze and stare desperately at the audience this will end soon.”
“Yes, please grab my chin and forcefully direct it back to your uncomfortable intimate gaze. I love it when men I don’t know treat me like I am four years old, so definitely keep this up. I’m really enjoying myself.”
“So, I really feel like we have done the whole ‘spoofing last year’s name cluster” redemption skit now. Anytime you are ready to stop stroking my jawline, I am also ready for that to stop. Nope, not stopping? Okay, perhaps if I start a round of enthusiastic clapping the audience will join in and Creepy McCreeperson will be distracted long enough that I can get away. Ready, set, clap. Clap clap clap. Shit, it’s not working!
“Thank God in Heaven he released my face. I couldn’t take one more second of that bullsh…wait, what? Why is wrapping his arm around me and pulling me in? Why did I agree to this stupid bit anyway? Totally not worth it. He can call me Adele Dazeem for the rest of his life if that means I don’t have to have my countenance manhandled by this guy.”
Some people may think I’m overreacting. That’s fine, everyone is entitled to their opinion. However, their opinion is wrong because look at the faces on these two women. They are not having fun. They are not enjoying the breach of both etiquette and personal space. Their bubble is not being acknowledged.
Maybe I’m old fashioned, but if a man comes up behind me unannounced, wraps his arm around me tightly and rests his hand on my waist just below my breasts, that man better be my husband. If a man is holding my face with one hand, and caressing my cheek with the other while calling me darling, that man also best be my husband. I can think of no other situation in which any other man should be doing any of these things.
I don’t blame Scarlett Johannsen or Idina Menzel for responding the way they did. It’s the way women are taught to behave in such circumstances. Whether the whole world is watching, or no one at all, the most common reaction for a women is to freeze, accept what is happening, and hope it’s over soon. It’s a gray area for us; it’s not egregious enough that we can become upset and defend our bodies right then and there without bringing down judgment upon ourselves, labeled as prudish or “bitchy.” It is egregious enough that even after the awkwardness is over, it sticks with us for a while afterwards, especially when we beat ourselves up for not saying something in the moment. In other words, still finding a way to absorb the blame, when we did nothing wrong in the first place.
How can we change this? I’m couldn’t even begin to offer a comprehensive answer that might serve as a solution. I do know this; if either Scarlett or Idina had hauled off and punched Octopus Hands right in the snout, I would have leapt off the couch, cheering for all I was worth.
Wondering what happened to the kids from the first part of this post? The young man, all fourteen years of him, was not held accountable for a damn thing. No referral, no instructions to write a heartfelt letter of apology, no provisions made to make sure Kelly did not have to see this kid every day of her life in classes, at lunch, at gym. Her parents thanked me profusely for intervening the way I did, but assured me that “this kind of thing wasn’t a big deal at fourteen.” The boy’s father refused to talk with his son to help him understand the gravity of his actions. “The problem,” he said to me, while proudly rocking a Not My Bill of Rights t-shirt, “is that society is so uptight about everything nowadays. All you teachers are just afraid you’re going to get sued, so you gotta overreact and drag me in here from work to talk about something that isn’t even a problem. Richard didn’t grab that girl for any sexual reasons; he’s just curious. You know how boys start getting really fascinated with girls with the raging hormones and all that? He told me he has to sit next to her everyday and that she dresses really slutty, like low cut or tight shirts, all the time. No teenage boy can sit by that everyday and not doing anything about it. That’s the truth. Any other boy sitting next to her would do the same thing, and they’re lying if they say they wouldn’t. They’re just curious, and anyway I think that’s the girl he said he had a little crush on…so it probably woulda happened anyway.”
I know when I’m staring into the face of pure ignorance, and I wasn’t going to waste my breath on this guy.
Meanwhile, Kelly met with the counselor, Ms. London, regularly for the rest of the school year. She couldn’t put her finger on what was making her so anxious and depressed, but she knew it started the day a young man grabbed a part of her body that he had no business touching.
I adamantly refused to let Richard back into my class. One of my bosses thought I was overreacting and behaving unreasonably. I didn’t care. I told her they needed to find a new language arts class for him, and while they were at it they might want to compare both of the kid’s schedules to ensure that they didn’t have any other classes together. Richard spent his language arts time in the in school suspension room for a couple days, and then found a class that had a teeny bit of space to squeeze him in. I didn’t care about where he went or how that class lined up with my class. I just didn’t want to see him again, and for the most part, I didn’t have to. He had acted in such a way that I couldn’t stand the sight of him any longer, and I just wanted him gone. I believe it’s possible he grew from this experience and realized what he did was so, so wrong. Then again, maybe not. I didn’t feel like being the one help him see the light, if I’m being honest.
I don’t know if my impromptu “teachable moment/shitty situation” speech changed any lives or not. That’s the thing about teaching. Most of the time teachers do not get to see what grows from the seeds they have planted. I’m okay with that. Every so often I am blessed with the opportunity to run into one of my seeds, grown into a sturdy tree. Maybe someday one of them will come tell me that punching someone in the face is the best advice they were ever given. Wouldn’t that be something?
Note: Shortly after publishing this post, a good friend of mine sent me a link to a incident that fit with mine like a glove. I have linked it here: This Girl Did This After the Boy Refused to Stop Snapping Her Bra
*All names have been changed, of course.
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