Tuesday, January 13th, 2004 • 2 Comments on Life Lessons Learned the Hard Way
Things I Wish I’d Known in Seventh Grade:
1. There is no such thing as a “permanent record.”
2. Algebra will never, ever be useful.
3. Sometimes the popular boys are also the scary boys.
When I was in middle school there was a program that allowed honor students to spend one class period as an office assistant or teacher’s assistant. In sixth and eighth grade, I was a teacher’s assistant to my two favorite teachers. In seventh grade, I was an office assistant. Basically what that meant was I (along with two other girls) answered phones and took messages while the office staff was at lunch. We also made photocopies and typed letters. Mostly we just goofed off and gossiped about who liked who. It seems odd to me now that they let three seventh grade girls run the office for an hour. I guess the benefits of having free labor outweighed the possibility that we would burn the place down.
One afternoon, a boy I knew was in the office. I don’t remember why he was there, but he was popular and I remember being excited when he said he was going to hang out with us. Even then, I knew he didn’t have the best reputation. There were rumors about him, nothing specific, but always the suggestion that he was trouble. A little wild. To three seventh grade girls, that was exciting.
I had to make a bunch of photocopies and the photocopier was out of paper, so I went into the supply room off the main office to get more paper. I was fumbling around, trying to find the right sized paper when I realized I wasn’t alone. He’d followed me into the supply room and was standing very close to me. I wasn’t excited, I was uncomfortable.
He told me he liked me, but there was something about the way he said it, the blank look on his face, that made my stomach flip-flop. I remember trying to laugh and feeling like my throat was closing up. I tried to get past him, but he pressed me up against the metal shelf and kissed me. I remember the corner of the shelf digging into my back as I tried to put some distance between us. The way he pressed against me was something I wouldn’t understand until I was in high school. I was scared, but to this day I don’t know why I didn’t yell for help. I turned my head away, but there was nowhere for me to go. This boy was big for his age and would go on to be the first freshman on the varsity wrestling team in high school. Even in seventh grade he had to be close to two hundred pounds and was several inches taller than me.
There was no where for me to go.
Thankfully, one of the other girls came looking for us and he let me go. I never told her, nor anyone else, about what had happened. Partly because I didn’t entirely understand what
happened and partly because I felt somehow responsible. He’d told me he liked me—that was my fault, right?
I was always very careful after that to keep my distance. Whenever he was nearby, I’d make sure there were other people around, and I always kept my eye on the door. He quickly lost interest in me and moved on to other girls who seemed to like the attention and didn’t notice the strange look in his eyes, a look I now know as predatory. By tenth grade the rumors about him had become more specific—he would get girls drunk and make them do things. The term “date rape” didn’t exist in the mid-80s, but they didn’t call it rape, either. The attitude was that if you were dumb enough to go off alone with him, you got what you deserved.
He wasn’t the only boy with a rep. There were others. Boys who were cute and charming and popular with parents. Boys who were predators. I don’t remember anyone ever being arrested for rape or assault, but I know it happened. The stairwells were always crowded on Monday mornings as we talked about who did what with whom in whose backseat. Most of the time, the escapades were mutual. But once in awhile, a girl would talk about a boy who hadn’t stopped when she said stop, who hadn’t let her go. These boys used coercion (“If you love me, you’ll let me” or simply, “Don’t be a tease”), they used threats (“I’ll break up with you”) or, like the boy I knew in seventh grade, they used strength and size. Whatever the case, the girl in question would rehash her story as if it had happened to someone else, questioning her own role in the event, mulling over how long to be mad at him, whether to break up with him.
The thing is, this kind of behavior—this cycle of assault without accountability—began long before I was in high school or even middle school. When I was in elementary school I used to wear shorts under my skirts. All the girls did. This was because there were boys who would lift our skirts to see our underwear. It was a joke, it was harmless. Was it really?
There was a long hallway (but perhaps not so long as my memory—and childhood fear—make it) that lead to the cafeteria. Each day when the lunch bell rang, we’d make our way down that hall. If you were lucky and had first lunch, you only had to worry about leaving the cafeteria. If you had the second or third lunch, you had two trips down that hall, five days a week. By second lunch the hall would be lined with boys, mostly fourth and fifth graders. We had to walk that gauntlet every day to go to and from the cafeteria, knowing our skirts would get flipped. It became such a routine thing, you’d think it wouldn’t phase us, but I don’t know a single girl who didn’t dread that walk. So why didn’t we just wear pants? Well, most of us did. But pants- wearing girls got their hair pulled and butts smacked. None of us walked that hall alone.
I can’t believe the teachers and administration didn’t know what was going on. In fact, I know some of them did because one teacher told a new student about the shorts-under-skirts practice after the girl came back from lunch crying. Yet, it happened day after day for the two years I attended that school. There were different versions of the skirt-flipping in higher grades—the up the back of shirt grope, searching for bra straps in middle school; the free-for-all grabbing of body parts in crowded high school hallways. We learned who to watch out for, which hallways to avoid, where the exits and girls’ bathrooms were (because, despite their bravado in groping our bodies, the boys would never dare step foot in a girls’ restroom). We watched and we learned and we got an education the school system never bragged about providing.
I’d like to think times have changed and girls aren’t going through the same stupid, frightening, harassing rites-of-passage my friends and I went through. I want reassurance that boys who commit assault and rape are held accountable. I need to believe things are different and better than when I went to school, but somehow I don’t think they are. I think girls still have to be careful and watch out for certain boys. And I think some boys, even the popular boys, are predators.