Maybe You've Been There, Too

(3 minute read)

photo by Phyllis Capanna
photo by Phyllis Capanna

There’s a story that’s big right now where I live, a story that’s stirring me in ways I didn’t expect that it would. The much-respected principal of the local high school was accused by a student of soliciting sex from her. The investigations and hearing seemed to go on forever. On Monday, the Board of Education met for the second time and voted to dismiss him. Throughout the proceedings, various voices loudly proclaimed his innocence, his excellent reputation, reminding everyone of how confused and manipulative and immature teenaged girls can be. In the few days before the final vote, some new allegations came out from other districts where the principal had been a teacher, in other states.

Other than feeling I was watching someone’s life come unraveled before my eyes—His wife files for divorce and moves out; he progresses from bright-eyed and confident to dark-eyed and roughly groomed in the newspaper photos—I didn’t know what to believe. I watched as those with stronger connections to and a greater stake in the drama played it out on the public stage. I thought it had nothing to do with me, and frankly, I was relieved that one item in the news didn’t directly threaten my serenity and sense of safety.

But I was wrong. This morning, two days after the principal’s dismissal, I am in the bathroom in the dark, and a memory floats up from that dim place between dreaming and waking. I remember back when I was married (to a man), and the man in question was dismissed for sexual harassment not three weeks into a new job. The feeling of having your world fold in on itself, of your life’s foundation turning from concrete to jelly is one I don’t think I’ll ever forget. An acquaintance, who happened to be in human resources at that firm, contacted me and said, basically, “Believe that it happened.” I couldn’t. A couple of years later, I did, as I watched my husband touch a friend of mine inappropriately, just a few feet from where I stood. Foundations crumble. Jelly melts into a sticky mess no one can eat, hard to clean up. It wasn’t the sexuality itself. It was the dissonance between who I believed him to be and who he was in some place so deep that even he couldn’t fully know it.

This morning, I also remembered something that happened in high school: My best friend had an affair with one of the teachers. They met in a motel several times. He gave her money. I thought she was the shit. It never occurred to me to tell anyone, just as it never occurred to me to tell anyone when the 40 year old guy I went out to dinner with as an 18 year old (It had to be okay; it was Mom-approved. Why?) got us into bed with each other, then got angry and vindictive with me for being sexual with him.

I also remembered Mr. Nick, the chemistry teacher, one of my high school heart throbs, with his sparkling blue eyes and funny jokes. And Mr. Philip before him, the 7th grade science teacher, and Mr. Schmidt, the former Marine who taught history. These teachers all had something in common: they had at least one, if not fifty, hormonally infused teenaged girls dripping all over them from dawn till dusk at their day jobs. Mr. Nick moonlighted at a liquor store on Route 38 in Cherry Hill. If he’d ever done anything to piss me off, I would have for sure told everyone about that job.

It wouldn’t have dawned on me to accuse him of propositioning me. Not because teachers didn’t do it with students. They did. Not because older guys didn’t come on to teenage girls. They did. But because it would never have dawned on me to say anything, period. It just wasn’t done. Maybe I’m naive, but sex was not a weapon back then. It was a badge of honor. If I’d told people I was sleeping with Mr. Nick, it would have been to brag, not to accuse.

But it was the women—the high school girl who blew the whistle, the girl’s mother, the wife who left—whom my memories brought me face to face with as I pondered the school principal’s dismissal. I wondered how many others–women and men–have experienced something like this and have kept silent, simply because no one had ever given them words, context, or possibility for speaking up.

The chances that any of the women in this particular story are reading my blog are slim, but for those who are reading it and have been there, I feel you. I’ve been there, too. I just wasn’t ready to admit it until this morning.

PhyllisSig

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