I was sexually harassed and assaulted for the first and second time in the third grade.
A boy whose name I’ll never be able to remember was under the mistaken assumption that putting his finger up my butt was a way to show that he liked me. Being a third grader in the 1990s, I was wearing leggings on the playground, sitting on the top of a piece of playground equipment everyone called the spider web. Everyone I was sitting and talking with shrieked and scrambled away, but I stayed, bewildered and unawares of what was going on. Afterwards, I shrieked at my peers, demanding to know who thought of such a terrible thing that a finger up the ass was any sort of amorous gesture.
This boy decided that I was the object of his affection, and the harassment continued. He (or his mother?) bought me a small chocolate sampler for Valentine’s Day, and he made a big deal out of giving it to me, as I did my best to absolutely ignore him, ashamed and embarrassed. I brought it home, where my mom cooed over the anonymous-to-her boy’s crush, and I was silenced, the thought of those chocolates making me nauseous until my mom volunteered to eat them a month or so later.
The second boy’s name was Aaron, and he sat at my four pack of desks. He was the son of one of the two kindergarten teachers at Oak Hill Elementary. Aaron saw his mother’s position as power that he could leverage. He demanded to borrow my school supplies, he demanded that he be able to copy off of me. He threatened to have me kept inside during recess, he threatened to have me suspended and expelled. He threatened my sister, who was in kindergarten at the time, with similar things for no apparent reason other than to control me. When I stood up for myself, he called me nasty, horrible names that I can’t remember. I burst out sobbing in the middle of homeroom.
Ms. Neil came over to find out what the fuss was about. Aaron denied having any idea why I burst out crying, and I spoke through sobs to say that Aaron had called me many nasty names, but I didn’t dare repeat them. I remember the emotional intensity of this moment, but not much of the by-play. I would guess though my haze of recollection that Ms. Neil moved Aaron from the desk colony to another one, told me that I should try to calm down, but if I needed to I should go visit the bathroom and clean up. I know that she must have called my mother, because I know my mother and Ms. Neil had a parent-teacher conference.
My mom, on the phone, told another adult about this meeting: “The teacher suggested that I teach Katie about sexual harassment. I said, ‘Isn’t that a sin? She’s only eight years old!'”
I don’t remember being taught. I only remember the rule of thumb: If someone is bothering you, if they sexually harass you, you need to tell an adult.
I must have told an adult everything. Which adult I told, I do not remember. The first boy was withdrawn from school by his parents, rumored to become home-schooled. Aaron, on the other hand, remained — but I never had to interact with him again.
Knowing what sexual harassment was and that any such harassment should be reported to an adult empowered me to stand up for myself, it gave me agency, and ultimately awareness for injustice. I didn’t always apply the concept correctly — in the fifth grade I reported slurs (“You retard!”) as sexual harassment, the same as the kids who called me Katie Dickslayer while waiting in line for the bus — but that didn’t stop me. In middle school I encouraged my peers to talk to adults about the boys who were pestering them, because they didn’t have to tolerate it. In high school I developed a reputation as the girl not to cross, the one not to make sexual jokes around, the one who chorused, constantly, “Leave her alone, will you?”
So, thank you, Ms. Neil, third grade teacher, and my mom, for teaching me what sexual harassment is, and how to stand up for myself. Even though you taught me too late, and you taught me reluctantly, you taught me that I didn’t have to take harassment. Seeing it happen to all of my peers, though many years of public school taught me that it wasn’t knowledge that other people had, or if they had it, they didn’t feel empowered to use it.
It’s knowledge I have, and it’s knowledge I use. I’ve educated myself, and I’ll continue to educate myself, and I’ll continue to speak out. And I do.