Note: I wrote this post back in November and haven’t been able to bring myself to share it. Through self-exploration and intentional work, I am beginning to find my voice without fear of hurting others with this pain, and in feeling validity in the importance of sharing the hard stuff. Thank you for reading. In full disclosure and warning, this post mentions trauma and abuse.
A couple of months ago, I received a message from LinkedIn. It was a request to connect and when I saw the name, I was taken back. Back to a place I hate to go back to. When I was in 4th and 5th grade, myself and some friends were sexually assaulted by three classmates. It was one of these three classmates that was reaching out to connect.
And I hesitated, starting to question a denial of their request. I hesitated because I was not sure if I should have moved on by now. Should I have forgiven this person who too was also a kid nearly 25 years ago? Am I being too harsh in wanting to erase this from my life? Shouldn’t I recognize the influence of the world on this person, the toxicity that must have radiated in their life to make them treat me like they did?
Suddenly, my gut kicked in and I clicked no. This is my life, my body, this person violated that and they have no right to access me again, in any way.
The #metoo hashtag came forward not too soon after this event. I have to admit it was completely overwhelming because I was brought to many places I didn’t want to be. To be on social media meant seeing over and over the people in my life who listed #metoo. I even took a moment to consider where #metoo happened for me. I could think of 12 instances and that was too much. So, I never posted #metoo. In fact, this is the first public forum I am deciding to take that step for myself. And this is because I see my daughter’s face and I want desperately for her not to be a #metoo.
But inevitably she will be.
Thus, I am choosing to focus my parenting on the trust in our relationship. I want her to know that no matter what, she can talk to me. That she should talk through these things when they happen if that helps her process it or to take care of herself. Or if even to remind herself that when your gut tells you that something isn’t right but the world around you insists that it’s normal, that it’s never normal or right.
My elementary school experience was held as mine alone for many years which is incredibly odd when I share the details. Myself and a couple of friends experienced daily harassment and assault in a variety of forms. Two friends in particular experienced it worse than me. I have used this as an excuse for years to not make a big deal of all of it. For whatever reason, these three young boys listened to me when I said I was going to tell. So they left me alone more often than they did not. This was not the case for the two other friends who experienced daily violation of their bodies.
As part of my 5th grade class, I participated in a media club. I was putting together a piece on recess games. One of the young boys was a guest. The adult advisor was walking me through what to say and reminded me to thank this other student. I looked right at this adult and finally said “I don’t want to thank him.” He pressed and eventually got out of me that this person was hurting my friend. I did not reveal that he also hurt me. Things moved quickly after that. My friend didn’t come to school the next day and I felt horrible. I had finally told when she made me swear not to. She came back the next day and I apologized on the playground. She didn’t say much, I still felt horrible.
Next, they had myself and about six other young girls pulled into a classroom with a teacher. She asked us what happened. No one wanted to say anything. I was the only one who spoke up. I first said that these kids would grab our bodies. I used the word “breast” and got an icy stare from a friend. I looked at the one friend who suffered the most and couldn’t believe she wasn’t saying anything. I shared only a couple pieces in this space, what one might consider to be the least amount of harm that we experienced. I did not share it all. I could not possibly say it in front of these friends or this teacher. I was silenced.
Afterwards, my friends came up to me and couldn’t believe I said anything. I was even teased for using the word “breast.” Nothing else happened next, but I do remember my classroom teacher apologizing to my friend, saying she was so sorry she didn’t know. She couldn’t have. This always happened when she left the room, during recess, or when we were in line far behind her view.
But here’s the part that still baffles me. The young boys had in-school suspension and disappeared for a few days. They did stop after that. At least, they stopped hurting me. My mother never said anything to me about it and I remembered wondering why. I just assumed that it was not a big deal, or maybe she felt it was handled. I admit it did make me consider that maybe I made a big deal of something that wasn’t so big. Maybe my friends were right.
I brought this up to her again about 7 years ago, at the advice of a therapist. She quickly became incredibly angry and explained that she knew nothing of this. They never called her, no one ever told her. Not the guidance teacher I told, the teacher in my classroom, the science teacher who I shared details with, the mother of the friend on whom I told about, not me. No one told my mom.
I quickly realized that all of my thinking, twisting, justifying was all wasted. It was clear that she thought this was very wrong and she was so upset that she didn’t know. That she wasn’t able to help and that this was kept secretly from her.
The irony for this, is that my mother taught me very early that my body is mine. She even shared instances of her own #metoo and regularly told me that I could tell her anything, not matter what. In my heart, I knew I had to be right, that she’d be upset too. But I still never told her. I had opportunity after opportunity and I never did. But I also know that she never explicitly asked if someone had ever hurt me. At least, I don’t remember if she did. I can only assume she thought I would tell her, after she told me over and over that I could tell her anything.
I look at my 4 year old and I worry all the time about who might hurt her, or who already has. I decided early on that I would just ask her, and to do so explicitly. In the work I do, I know that people don’t always disclose on the first ask. But if you keep asking, they will tell you when they’re ready. So I am going to keep asking. And I am going to keep reminding her what is okay touch and what is not okay touch. The amount of relief I experience when she looks at me and says “no, Mommy,” as if I just asked her a silly question, is abundant.
I know I can’t protect her from abuse, an all too common experience for most of us. The purpose of #metoo is it’s pretty much #allofus. If I could keep her from being a #metoo, I’d do anything for that. But in the meantime, I have to shift my parenting to focus on the reality of the world we live in, and instead continue to build trust between her and I. To teach her about consent, self-protection, and survival.
Because all I want to believe is #neverhertoo.
*I want to uplift Tarana Burke, the founder of MeToo. She is a Black woman seeking justice for herself and our people. She set the ball in motion and I cannot post this without honoring that history, her voice as the catapult for finding my own.