Last fall, a former creative writing student wrote about when her childhood ended, which prompted me to ask, “When did my childhood end?” My first thought was as it had always been – when I was 16, the day that my dad died. I’d stepped up and attempted (emphasis on attempted) to take over his responsibilities to help my mom at that point.
But when I reflected further, I lost my childhood two years prior, right after I’d turned 14. I was working for a former teacher on Saturdays. My dad was a dying alcoholic, and we weren’t getting along (understatement). I had started to think of this teacher as a “replacement father.” I would arrive at the school before his students did to make certain that the building was secure; there had been break-ins – gram scales stolen from the lab for measuring cocaine. I’d also helped with set up for a day of learning.
He started holding my hand as we walked through the halls together. That was okay. My dad had held my hand for years when we’d walked places. Then, out of nowhere, he proposed teaching me photography in the milk room, which was essentially a large closet. I said sure; I was always up for a new learning experience, and I so wanted to please him. It was nice to have someone’s approval because goodness knows that I no longer had my dad’s.
The second Saturday that we were in the milk room, I was crying hard because my father and I had had a terrible Friday night. I no longer recall which incident.
The teacher and I were developing photos from negatives of his wife, who was sitting on a park bench, holding an infant – one their six children. It was then that he French kissed me, slipped his hand beneath my lavender jersey to cop a feel, and started sticking his hand down the front of my jeans. It was my first real kiss. (I hate “write about your first kiss” prompts to this day. They make me shudder.)
Here I was weeping because I was losing the father I had loved (at one time, “Daddy’s Little Girl”) to alcohol and cancer, and his surrogate was making sexual advances. Finally, this fact kicked in, and I stopped the progression of his hand just as it reached under my bikini panty line. “I love you,” he whispered. “We can go as slow as you’d like.”
Students arrived shortly thereafter, and I left the school early, using the excuse that I had to babysit. I walked home through two towns, sun reflecting on snow that had fallen on the roof of a yellow house. Each step sounded crisp. Tears wet my cold cheeks. I had never felt so alone or betrayed.
I didn’t tell my parents, and the two people I did tell, I swore to secrecy.
I would later learn that he’d been doing this to female students for at least 16 years.
Occasionally his wife, also a teacher, but at a different school, graded in the teacher’s lounge. Whenever I had passed the room and said hello to her, she’d reciprocated stiffly, despite that I was always polite and cheery to her. I was puzzled by her coldness until I eventually put two and two together: she knew what he was doing all along and had allowed it to continue. She’d considered me the problem, the enemy.
When I was a high school sophomore, I went to him during school hours. He was on his free period, and I asked to speak to him privately. He took me into the storage room for chemicals, beakers, and Bunsen burners. There, I threatened to tell on him. He looked me in the eye and asked, “Who do you think they’d believe – you or me?”
It was 1983. I was a lower-middle class, 15-year-old daughter of a dying alcoholic. He was a well-established, highly respected, and popular teacher. They’d have believed him.
I’m thankful that today, if a high school girl made a complaint about the sexual conduct of a teacher, it would very likely be investigated.
I felt such shame that I was sexually molested (a word that wouldn’t enter my vocabulary for several more years), that my self-esteem, not good at that time, plummeted. Depression. Anorexia. My grades dropped.
I’ve had significantly worse experiences happen to me since then. Are the incidents related? Somehow, I think that what happened in that dark room was the first link in a chain for me, and at the same time, a manacle attached to women extending back to pre-recorded history.
I will turn 50 next month.
My path diverged the day I lost my childhood, and those lips and hands, that touch, never left.