Remember the scene in the Titanic movie when Rose is now the sweet old lady (played by Gloria Stuart) and she says that a woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets? If you are female and this resonates with you, then you probably understand why sometimes women don’t share their “Me Too” stories until much later. If you are female and you this doesn’t resonate, consider it a blessing. There are some things, related to my own “Me Too” story that I will take to my grave. I’m confident that doesn’t make me unique.
Because I’m a female, and I know what that can often mean, I already have conversations with my daughters about difficult subjects. My girls are only 10, 7, and 4 but I regularly remind them that they can talk to me about anything, even if it makes us uncomfortable, and that I will always answer their questions now and as they get older. They know that they are always supposed to come to me and they can talk to me and their dad. I talk to them about what acceptable behavior is and is not from other people towards them, kids and adults, strangers and family, and that if anyone tells them not to tell me something that is an absolute red flag. I repeat this to my girls, over and over, so that they will remember it and so when the day comes that the difficult possibilities are reality, the conversation will come more natural than it might otherwise. They know that there are some bad people in this world who try to take children and try to harm children. They know that if they are ever taken they have to get away, as fast as they can, and not be taken to a second location. I pray that these conversations will help protect them if they ever end up in a situation without me. I know for sure that if I don’t talk to my girls first about tough topics, someone else will as they get older, and I want them to have the right information. There’s a delicate balance between age appropriate honesty and preparation and fear, but it is necessary in this world.
There’s some point for all girls when you realize what life is starting to be like. You get older and boys start to notice you. If you’re lucky you never had to deal with the smiling “I didn’t do anything, it wasn’t me” boys in the cafeteria line touching girls butts as they are trying to get lunch. For those of you who didn’t know, now you know one reason why an administrator often has to monitor the cafeteria line in middle and high school. Hopefully you never had the “older, upstanding member of the community creeper who works with children” who you thought was incredibly nice until the one opportunity when you were alone, at barely 16 years of age, and he decided to make his move. And no one believes that he would do that. And it’s never dealt with. Or the “just give me a chance athlete” you are tutoring as a part of your university job who thinks it’s ok to touch you under the table in the lab. Or the “boyfriend who is so sorry” who tries to force you to have sex even though you made it clear you weren’t going to do that. I don’t know what it’s like to be a boy, but I know that being a girl is tiring. Every experience wears you down, and makes you disappointed in others and in yourself, because you didn’t see it coming or because you did and you thought the ending would still be different.
And then you are grown up and instead of everything being okay, here comes the “coworker you thought was nice.” Too nice. The thing is that this isn’t something you recognize right away in lots of cases. Someone seems nice, you know them, everyone you know knows them, and they have been normal for years. Then the way they treat you changes. It’s weird, really weird. Out of respect for other people’s privacy and my own, I won’t name names surrounding this situation and there are some details about what happened that I will leave out intentionally. If anyone reading this knows about this situation, I ask that you refrain from names as well. It’s been done for years but I still go to a different gas station if I drive in and see the person there. I never thought I would have to, but I filed a sexual harassment claim. It was more for someone else than myself. I found out that I wasn’t the only one who was being bothered and that a friend/co-worker had already been physically assaulted by the same person, whereas mine had only been verbal with a few awkward touches of the arm in passing. My friend did not want me to speak up. She was afraid, for her safety, for her job, and it caused a rift between us that I couldn’t fix. That was a tough time. We were still going to work every day pretending that nothing was wrong and we weren’t in a cubicle. We were interacting with tons of people all day (staff, students, parents) and acting as if we were fine. I was told I could remain anonymous. That was the first question I asked. I made the report. Then I was told, after, right before I had to teach a class, that I couldn’t remain anonymous after all and that the accuser would be told who reported them and told to stay away from me. I was called into the office in the middle of the day, between teaching classes, to discuss the situation. I would wipe my tears and put my smile back on. It was too much, and although I didn’t say anything, a few people noticed something wasn’t right and they begin waiting for me and offering to walk me to my car. I remember another coworker asking me one afternoon, do you want me to walk you to your car? And I said yes, please. That was it. No other discussion. And I never explained or told that coworker how much that meant to me. I just couldn’t talk about it.
The worst part of the whole thing for me, that has stuck out in my memory and I can’t seem to shake after all these years, was when I was being questioned and I expressed how unfair it was that I couldn’t enjoy staff meetings or celebrations because that person was there and it was very uncomfortable for me (and of course for the other lady who had been even more affected). The response was, “He’s just one of the good ol’ boys.” I have thought that over many, many times and while I think that the leader who said it didn’t mean it quite the way I took it, it was not an appropriate thing to say.
There was only so much that could be done because my friend refused to come forward. The changes that were supposed to be implemented were not followed, I was touched again, and I complained again. What a mess. Even now I wish I had never been a part of any of it. I said things I shouldn’t have said that I regret. I was frustrated. I was upset. And I had to check my niceness. Was this all my fault? Why am I so nice to people? Was I too nice? Should I have kept it to myself? What would have happened if I didn’t? Because of additional details I won’t share here, I know I did the only right option and that was to go forward to leadership. But that friendship suffered and I don’t know that I was able to protect her in the end.
The other strangest thing that was shared with me was that the employee was asked who he thought reported him. He guessed several names and mine wasn’t one of them. Can we say red flag? But that person was not fired. I was asked what punishment I wanted to happen to him, which also seems weird and not appropriate for leadership to ask in a sexual harassment situation, and I remember saying “I’m not trying to ruin his life or his family.” Like so many others in these situations, I just wanted the situation to go away. I didn’t want to rock the boat. I wanted it to go away. I wanted to go to work as normal. But when you find out a friend has already been assaulted, at work, you want help in dealing with it. It’s hard enough to go forward and once you do, you want someone else to take over, to bear the burden, to fix it. You don’t expect to be questioned and told “he’s one of the good ol’ boys.” One thing that had been done was rationalized and excused away, and in that moment, the light bulb went off brighter than ever. I got it. I understood why girls and women stay silent. To tell means you are messing up a “good ol’ boy” who couldn’t have done anything wrong. You are questioned as if you made it up or did something wrong yourself. You don’t feel better. Your worry doesn’t go away. If anything, it gets worse for a while.
I hope anyone reading this will take my simple advice. Don’t stand by and let someone else suffer, or suffer yourself, if you can tell anyone else. Get help but be wise in who you go to first. Be prepared, if you can, to remove yourself from the situation physically. Going to work every day was incredibly stressful. I loved my job and I’m not saying you should let the bad guy win, but you can’t always count on the people who are supposed to protect you. And the bad guys, or the “good ol’ boys” are smart. They will gain access to you again if they want to, especially when you weren’t even on the guess list of who turned them in.
I thank God he gave me a voice, even though using it cost me a friendship. I did tell her I was sorry but you have to understand what a stressful time it was. I made a decision and I stuck with it, and she couldn’t speak or even look at me. I’ll never forget trying to talk to her when I saw her down the hall and how she turned away from me. This was someone I had talked with every day, sometimes twice a day, and it was an awful feeling. I hope that she has forgiven me. I hope she knows that I did it because I loved her, because it was the right thing to do, and because I was scared for us both if I didn’t. I thank God he protected me from harm, even though some things were done that I haven’t forgotten. I thank God that he has shown me good people aren’t always good, and maybe that good and bad aren’t such simple terms. There are lots of shades of gray in between the two.
I have to teach my girls not only to watch out for bad people, but to watch out for the ones who seem good, and to monitor their own behaviors all the while trying to maintain a joy and zest for life that no one should be able to take away. Another thing I hope that people reading will take away is that in this situation, I had known this person for years and nothing ever struck me as out of the ordinary. The heart and the mind can change, and sin can try to creep in on anyone. It is so important to be able to confide in someone else when you are in trouble. This is why I have those conversations with my girls now. I also want them to know who else they can go to if they don’t want to come to me, even though I hope they will. I need to know I’ve done all I can to give them a lifeline, just in case I can’t keep them away from the “good ol’ boys.”