I attended the public high school starting in 9th grade so that I could be on the swim team. The rumors of a “pool on the 4th floor” of the Catholic high school proved to be false, and so I found myself immersed into a world of diversity like I had not seen at school before. Catholic middle schools aren’t exactly known for their comprehensive sex education programs. I therefore entered 9th grade at the public high school unprepared for the un-repressed hormones of high school boys and naive to the influence they could have on me.
At the risk of sounding conceited, I must share a bit of information that’s important to the purpose of this blog post: In the off-season of 9th grade swimming, I worked out with the boys team. I could swim as fast as any of them, and a teammate of mine convinced me to be co-managers of the boys swim team that year.
As a manager with no driver’s license, I rode the bus to and from the away swim meets. Fourteen year old me and a bus full of teenage boys. On one particular trip, it was late at night when we headed back. The team earned a big win that evening, and the atmosphere on the bus was electric. I didn’t think twice about joining the celebration in the back of the bus near two seniors.
And then suddenly I felt the hand of one of those seniors move up my leg. I froze. Here was a popular, good-looking, successful eighteen year old male giving me attention. My outward confidence wasted away as I tried to process what was happening to me. I’ve blocked out a lot of the details of that first incident, but it wouldn’t be the last time. The next time it was senior #2 who took my hand and put it squarely on his member under his sweatpants. He put a blanket over the top, but based on the whispers, there was no question in anyone’s mind that I had to be the instigator of the encounter. I think I might have closed my eyes. I didn’t know how to call out for help. I had no idea what I was doing and there was nothing enjoyable about the experience. And now, as a strong, clear-minded, self-respecting 35 year old woman, there is no doubt in my mind that what happened to me was sexual abuse.
Of course, the high school rumor mill is brutal and unforgiving. I was told I was a “slut” who broke up a relationship, and for four years of high school, I was I was cursed with a nickname and a “reputation” that followed me through the hallways. I kept swimming, broke records, earned awards including becoming an All-American in the 100-yard backstroke. But the shame of those incidents haunted me and in my own mind seemed to overshadow anything I did in the pool. With every new person I met, I wondered if they knew my secret and judged me.
I left for college and seemingly left that period of my life behind me. I was unable to forge any deep rooted friendships from high school and so it seemed easy to have a fresh start. The shame that bound my soul existed in the back of my brain rather than the forefront. I no longer worried when I met new people whether they had heard what I had done in the back of that bus. But there was a wound that remained unhealed until I accepted my powerlessness over alcohol and allowed myself to heal.
Two years ago, I attended a club swim team reunion. That night, adults gathered socially, as they tend to do. A similar figure from my past now looked me square in the eyes and un-apologetically asked what I was doing later on. With 2.5 years of sobriety under my belt, I could clearly recognize the manipulation when I saw it. I wasn’t surprised when the friend of his asked if I was going to meet up later, but I could identify it as harassment this time. What happened next shocked even me: there was another woman there, a teacher, who casually glanced at my wedding ring and then asked me if I was interested in this gentleman. Yes. This woman, a high school teacher only a few years my senior, rather than defend me from the harassment of these two gentlemen perpetuated it. And all I could think about were the 14-year old kids that this woman also had in her classroom. And with that, I put down my club soda with lime and exited the establishment.
Some may be thinking, Why write this after 20+ years? The answer is simple: my students. Every year innocent, impressionable children enter my classroom and my number one job is to protect them. I didn’t have the tools to protect myself, and I believe that everyone whose job it was to protect me did the best they could. Rumors fly around high schools in the same way they did back then. But now I have the opportunity to help others who might feel vulnerable and silenced. I have an opportunity to create a culture in my classroom where a 14-year old child doesn’t feel defined by the cruel words of peers. Twenty years later, it’s still acceptable to victim-blame and shame people into thinking the absence of an explicit “no” is equivalent to “yes.” And sober, 35-year old Megan can stand up straight and tall for the 14-year old that she was inside.