Friday, February 03, 2006

Beast of Burden

Read this only after you've read the last few posts so you know the context within which I share this. It's a non-fiction story I wrote a year or so ago.

Beast of Burden

As a high school senior, everyday after lunch I would head down the hall in the opposite direction of most everyone else. Our high school was so large it required two cafeterias and three different lunches. I'd walk by the smaller cafeteria and past the gaudy orange entrance to the men's locker room where various groups would often congregate. In the empty corridors that most students never entered except during special events, I'd navigate past the janitorial storage area, the school's TV studio, the theater and finally arrive at the band room. The band room was my homeroom, my study hall location and where I spent the middle of the day, playing my clarinet with the band. I'll readily admit that I was a band geek. President of the band for two years running, thank you very much.

My school was very diverse culturally. With its equal percentages of Caucasian, African American and Hispanic students it was more diverse than most and I embraced it. Besides being a band geek I was also the only white person on the African American drill team. I became captain. By drill team I do not mean girls in skirts twirling flags or even guns; I mean stomping, whooping and clapping rhythmically. It was great fun and a different way for me to meet new people and experience something completely outside of my nerdy existence.

Because of some perverse joke the administration enjoyed playing on its students, or so it seemed, my locker was not only on the entire opposite end of the building as far from the band room as possible, but it was also 3 floors up. Given such an inconvenient location, I ended up carrying almost everything for the day with me. On certain days that meant a larger than normal clarinet case that could hold non-folded sheet music; a gym bag, usually plastic, usually Walmart; a backpack with AP and honors text books in it; a purse; and finally a box of fund raising candy for the annual band trip. I was an adolescent sherpa.

After lunch, everyone else was herded into the academic section, a three storied square with stairways at each corner. Student were easily and often driven to irritation upon realizing they'd taken the wrong stairwell up and now had to walk the entire length of two halls to get to their classroom on the opposite side of that section of the building all in the span of 2 minutes. The pushing and shoving of hundreds of other hormone crazed teenagers in the same predicament did nothing to ease the strain. Because of my beast of burden status, I left a very wide wake. Unfortunately, not being very intimidating I did not warrant such a wake in the eyes of my peers. There was never something so insulting to another student as the accidental bump from someone's belongings. I could have gone out for the football team as a wide-receiver, bobbing and weaving through the crowds, but never touching. No, never touching. Even a soft brush of a back-pack against another person could illicit angry looks and expletives. I assimilated my varied luggage as part of myself. Shifting, tucking, lifting and stretching my way down the halls to my destination, wary for any perceived aggression on my part.

Whoever designed the building decided to color code the floors. The first floor was mostly white and orange, in slimming yet vertigo inducing vertical stripes. It housed the administrative offices, in-house suspension, special-ed, and the shop rooms. Having a distinct aversion to trouble I spent very little time in that section of the building and limited it only to an occasional art class or a group excursion to the library.

The second floor was also orange but in place of white was yellow, a yellow that held no cheer, no sunny disposition. It wasn't even school bus color. I'm fairly convinced the architectural firm held a contest for its employees to choose the color that resembled the majority of the worst bodily excretions and this color won. The lucky dwellers of this floor were the humanities: languages, history, social studies. It could not have been good for the psyche, this vomit yellow and bright orange color scheme, again in stripes.

Luckily for me, I spent most of my time when not in the band room on the 3rd floor in the science and math classrooms. The third floor was like entering another world, an underwater world. Everything was varying shades of blue. It was dark and calming. The stripes were difficult to discern because the two shades of blue were so similar. Students swam in this cool darkness from class to class.

The band room, besides being physically removed from the academic section, was removed stylistically as well. This section near the theater was the more public face of the school. Instead of the white painted cinder blocks, the hall walls were brick. The doors of the auditorium however could not escape their destiny or the wrath of the designers. They too were orange. I would not be surprised to hear that the architectural firm hired an outside consultant to design the band room because, in a bold move, the designers broke their design scheme. With the exception of the exit door, there was nary a sign of orange. The tiered floor was covered in a carpet of deep red with black speckles. It was the only place in the school where you could, and wanted to, sit on the floor.

One day toward the end of senior year after 1st lunch, I shouldered and picked up my myriad bags, left the cafeteria, waved goodbye to my friends all heading in the opposite direction and headed for the band room. I turned to the right and between me and the boy's locker room was a large group of black guys, probably 10-15 strong. My high school had unsanctioned fraternities, especially among the African American population, and this looked like it might be one of them. Despite considering myself fairly cosmopolitan it gave me pause. But I thought, this is just like any other group of people in the hall, don't be so prejudiced. This did nothing to alleviate my concern given that most large groups of anyone foreign to me; male or female, black or white, jock or nerd, made me nervous. I may have been brave enough to try new things with new people but those moments before mingling becomes acceptance have always been nerve wracking for me. Still, I decided to walk right through. I didn't want them to know they scared me. I didn't want to be scared. Or prejudiced. What's the worst that can happen? I thought, it's the middle of the day, a fairly populated hallway, teachers right over there behind me.

So I began my walk. Quickly, and with purpose, but not with fear or any telltale clutching of the purse. I had so many bags I probably couldn't have found my purse even if I'd wanted to clutch it. I walked through proud of myself for facing my fear and proving to myself that first impressions are not always correct.

And then it hit me. Or rather a person hit me. Or rather a person grabbed my hands and pushed me against the wall face first. My arms and their contents were over my head, pinned by someone else's hands. My face was against the white painted cinder blocks, the paint that never feels cold or warm, just clammy, pressed against my cheek. All I could see was white. I still clutched my clarinet in my right hand. The corner of the case hit me on the side of the head as my assailant began to press himself against me. He rubbed himself against me. His penis was against the top of my buttock, the small of my back. Humping. I learned that word when I was in second grade. I was mocked by a more worldly second grader when I asked her what it meant. Now I knew. I knew. And not just because I was told by a child many years ago. I was helpless against a wall being humped by someone I couldn't see. Time sped up and slowed down. I was fully clothed yet naked. Dirty. Knowing that all around me were other men, boys. They were watching. Watching this happen to me. Watching out to see that no one came to help me. Did they all have similar intentions? I didn't even have time to ask myself. I was let go and pushed in my initial direction. I never dropped any of my baggage, but I had picked some up.
I don't know how I built up the courage to do it, I doubt it was courage, but I stole a quick glance as I ran away from them and into the isolated hallway. Shit, what if this is the way they wanted me to go? I'm alone. What if there were more of them? I'm alone. What if they were following me? Am I alone? I realized from my quick glance that I knew one of them. He was in my Chinese class. I had made eye contact. There was no recognition there. He knew me, I know it. But recognition was nowhere in his eyes. I was a nameless, faceless female he and his buddies could use and throw away in some fraternal initiation rite.

I continued on to the band room, shocked. I could still feel him on me. His presence was palpable. I touched the small of my back to be sure he was gone and shivered. The first person I saw was C, a friend of mine I felt fairly close to. I told him breathlessly, "I've just been…" What? What have I just been, I thought? Attacked? Assaulted? I didn't know the words for this type of thing. I laughed nervously and said something about being pushed against the wall and rubbed against. Embarrassed. I laughed again and smiled, not knowing what else to do. He smiled back, no clue as to how serious this was, reacting to my reaction. I desperately needed someone to get mad together with me. To say, we're going down to the principal's office right now. I wasn't going to do it myself. I didn't do it myself. I saw the band director and told him some version of the story. C laughed and made some kind of joke. I found my voice and said it wasn't funny. Mr. C agreed and asked if I wanted to go to the principal's office. "No…no, not really," I replied. Of course that's how I replied. No one wants to go down to the principal. I didn't want to say out loud what happened, what really happened. I'd left out the humiliating details, the humping, the sexness of it, in my retelling. I didn't know what to do. I wanted to tell but I wanted to be rescued from the telling. I wanted someone to say "We're gonna get those bastards. You just sit tight."

I dropped off my bags and went in search of more friends, sympathy, anger. I didn't know what. In order to find anyone I had to walk back down that hallway. The hallway. I peered around the corner. No one. I breathed a sigh of relief and scurried, now weightless without my parcels yet heavy with my new burden, to the small cafeteria. I found just who I needed. Two or three of my closest male friends; L, who had been an early boyfriend of mine, and another, S, whom I hoped would be. I told them I'd just been attacked in the hall and pressed against the wall. Again, I spared them, as I hadn't been spared, the sexual details. S stood up, his fists clenched, and growled fiercely "Where are they?" I had to grab him. "They're gone now, they're gone," I said, surprisingly happy with his response. I knew that if he had been there I wouldn't have been alone. If he'd known he would have helped. Someone else was now angry, and protective.

L asked if I was OK. He was always very sweet and concerned. I said yes, suppressing a shudder as the ghost phallus pressed itself against me. "You should tell someone," he added. "I know…I dunno," I answered, "Maybe." No one pushed me further. Self-conscious now that the drama had faded I stood up and went back to the band room.

That was it. It's an unfulfilling end. It isn't an end. Maybe if I'd encountered a female friend or teacher first things would have been different. Maybe in the calm blue halls of the third floor away from the scene I would have been able to articulate my experience better. In the midst of delusions of grandeur, I think maybe I could have swung my clarinet case around and knocked the guy out, scattering the group in fear. Maybe. I never went to the principal. I never told anyone else until years later in college and then only in vague references. My ex-husband knows, but not really. My parents have no idea. I had added another piece of baggage to my already overloaded burden. One more thing to carry through life.

When I finally told my story in more detail I was in a Master's class on gender and power, and it was 10 years later. I began strong enough. I had a point to make. I was taken by complete surprise, as I was that day on the first floor, when halfway through the telling my voice caught. I felt a warm swell of emotion start in the pit of my stomach and wash up over my body in a wave. Without warning, I was uncontrollably sobbing in front of 20 pseudo-strangers. I couldn't speak. One of my professors came over and held me. I loved her for that; for both the comfort and the shield from my classmates' eyes. When I regained composure I felt lighter. Part of the burden was gone. I had shed some of the weight I didn't even know I had been carrying.

My second telling of the story was 6 months later in a similar class. My voice wavered on the edge of tears but never lost control. I'm on my third telling. I am calm, like the blue underwater world of the third floor. I am weightless, my cases and candy and clarinet left in the past.

6 comments:

josh said...

sassy:

your remembrance is beyond comment.

but i hope the people who can make a difference are reading.

students: if this happens to you, you need to report this. this is not okay. you need to report this to someone. find an adult you trust. being male (albeit a friendly and empathetic male), i find it difficult to push that upon you, but i can't stress enough how wrong this is.

principals and teachers: this kind of thing is happening in your school. whether there are 250 students or 2500 (in a building built for 1600?), some students are suffering unnecessarily. i understand you have a job to do to enforce discipline and help children learn, but you also have a responsibility to be a person your students can trust in times of need. that's a big burden and our society does not value educators the way it should, but when things like this are going on in your school, you need to be of assistance to your students. no one else will be.

Kat said...

Don't ever stop telling.

Joolya said...

Wow. That's awful.
When I was in middle school "sexual harassment" as a term had trickled down to our school, but in practice it certainly had. On the school bus, there were usually three girls who sat in the back and about a dozen boys, who would climb in our seats, grab at our bodies and clothes, and make threatening lascivious comments throughout. One time one boy punched me in the arm. It was horrific - but at other times of the day some of these same boys were friendly and fun and nice. And no one ever got in trouble, and no one ever "told", and eventually we all went to high school and got (seriously) much more civilized. Forgotten, mostly. But how fucked up.

Joolya said...

(had not trickled down, i mean!)

alley rat said...

thank you for sharing this. goddamn. keep telling. this is so important, because this stuff happens every single day and it's just accepted as something girls (mostly) just have to tolerate. it's gotta stop- and telling stories, and encourage,like Josh does in his comments, other people to report it is a step in the right direction.

i hope you feel lighter.

(found you through your comment at Twisty's)

Anonymous said...

Sassy, thank-you for sharing your story. I'm crying as I type this because I have my own story buried away inside me, and no words to articulate the experience. I've learned to trivialize the experience as a way of dealing with it, but you've shown me that that's not the answer and no event that affects a person this much is trivial.