So, I haven’t really been excited about the “me too” thing going around social media, because I think that without any context on what happened, it’s easy for most people (especially men) who see those statuses to just shrug and say, “Yeah, yeah – everything’s considered sexual harassment these days.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that phrase in my life: “Everything’s considered sexual harassment these days.”
It usually (but not always) comes from men who are more afraid of being falsely accused of sexual harassment than they are of actually being harassed. It usually comes from men who assume that all a woman has to do is report them for a misunderstanding, and they will instantly face serious consequences. The belief that consequences for sexual harassment are always severe is a myth. We read the stories of some random school that expelled a 6 year old for hugging his friend, and we jump all over those stories because they’re outrageous, and we forget that for every little boy who that happened to, there are a thousand girls who were genuinely sexually harassed, reported it to the proper authorities, and were given no protection.
One of my most distinct memories from my teenage years is the day that I spoke to five other girls about sexual harassment. All six of us had experienced sexual harassment: crude sexual gestures, a boy snapping a girl’s bra strap through her shirt – blatant stuff like that. And here’s the thing: we had each reported the incident, and in every single case the boy faced utterly no consequences. In a few cases, the girl had been penalized in some way as part of the “solution” intended to “protect” her.
So, let me tell you about my earliest encounter with sexual harassment in school:
I was in high school, in a drama class. And this one kid, whom I’ll call NG because I don’t want to completely reopen this can of worms 15 years after this happened, liked “teasing” me. He’d sit on my desk while I was in my chair and make joke-seductive comments – and I was sitting in the kind of chair where the desk portion is attached, so I couldn’t get away. During improv activities, NG would specifically mess with me because he found my reaction funny. And I knew he probably wasn’t trying to hurt me, so I figured if he just knew it was upsetting me, he’d back off. I asked him to stop, but he kept on doing this stuff.
Then, one day when my teacher was out, and we had a very laissez-faire substitute, NG got up to his regular antics, only worse than usual. At one point, while we were all sitting in a circle (that’s how my school set up the desks in most classes), I looked across the room. He had sat across from me. Of course. And he was thrusting his hips in a crude and clearly-sexual gesture. In my direction. While looking at me and laughing. His friend was sitting next to him and saw and laughed too.
I was so shocked I had no idea how to respond. We had a policy in that class that we could just write our name on the board and go to the bathroom, rather than asking, but the substitute didn’t know the policy. So I jumped up, shouting, “I’m writing my name on the board, and I’m going to the bathroom” and ran out the door.
Here’s the thing. The majority of kids in that room hadn’t seen what NG was doing. They’d seen him “tease” me all throughout class, but they hadn’t seen the crude sexual gesture. So after I left, other kids got up and imitated me, using my exact words in a melodramatic parody. Even my own friends, not having seen what NG did, initially thought I was over reacting.
Naively, I thought this teacher would have my back. I knew him before the class because I did school plays. The teacher’s name I will share without a moment’s hesitation, because the world should know the kind of person he was and is: Andrew White. Drew White, better known to me as Mr. White, was a very popular but also polarizing teacher. I recall some particularly philosophical/intellectual students comparing him to Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series, and he was especially popular with male students. He was known for getting through to male students who normally hated English.
Among female students, it often seemed that Mr. White was popular with those who had a little bit of a teacher-crush on him. See, he was also known for being strikingly good looking. A female teacher once told me and a classmate, “Mr. White is too handsome for his own good.” Not something she should have said, especially not to students, I know, but that’s a topic for another day.
Mr. White had been in the Navy, before using the GI Bill to pay for school and interning as a teacher. My mom was on the committee that wanted to hire him at a different public high school, so I know that he came very, very highly recommended by the district where he interned. If he hadn’t chosen Oyster River over my mom’s school, my mom’s school would have hired him. He was that well-liked.
Why am I talking about my teacher, Drew White, when it was NG who sexually harassed me? I’m getting there, I promise.
So, thinking Drew White would be a responsible adult, I approached him after class the next day and asked to speak with him. I told him “something happened that I consider to be sexual harassment” (see how diplomatic I was with those words – I didn’t even say it was sexual harassment, just that I thought it was) while he was gone the day before.
The reaction was immediate and defensive. “That is not an accusation to throw around lightly,” he said, before telling me he couldn’t talk to me at the moment but would make time the next day.
Instead, here’s what he did: before talking to me and hearing any details, he addressed the entire class and said, “Does anyone want to tell me what happened while I was gone?”
NG, as it happened, was absent that day. A few of NG’s friends rushed to explain, not knowing that I hadn’t even had a chance to tell Drew White NG’s name: “NG didn’t mean anything personal! He wasn’t trying to go after Emily – he was just joking around.”
Drew White responded by telling everyone, “From now on, we are going to set the threshold of sensitivity based on whoever has the thinnest skin.”
Yes. Those are the words he used: “thinnest skin.”
After class, I was livid. Drew White approached me, looking all smug and proud of himself and asked, “Did that take care of your concern?”
I snapped, “No, it did not,” and stormed from the room before I lost it and either cried or yelled at a teacher.
I told my friends what had happened, including the details of what NG had actually been doing, and they were furious too. One particular friend had had her own problems with Drew White, just problems of a different nature. She didn’t like him, and it was clear she didn’t like him, so he’d follow her down the hall saying “Hi” and trying to get her to respond. After this happened, she snapped, “I don’t talk to people who condone sexual harassment,” and earned her own lecture on how “serious” that accusation is and the importance of not throwing it around lightly.
When my mother found out some of the details of how Drew White had handled the situation, she told him she wanted a parent-teacher conference with me present, which he agreed to schedule. I had to hang around school to wait till my mom could get there, and while I waited, Drew White came to the cafeteria and found me. He suggested we start talking while we waited for my mom. I was 16 and naive, and not nearly cynical enough to recognize that he was just trying to avoid responsibility for his poor handling of the situation.
Finally, he gave me a chance to tell him what had happened. Because, keep in mind, he still hadn’t given me a chance to tell him any of the particulars. The first time I’d tried to, he’d delayed talking till the next day. And then the next day he’d asked the whole class to tell him, rather than talking to me in private first.
Once I had told him the whole story, including the thrusting gestures and NG sitting on my desk while I was in it, and not stopping this stuff even after I’d asked him to stop it, here’s what Drew White said:
He said that while there was no excuse for what NG had done, and while he fully intended to talk to him about it and give him consequences, his bigger concern was that I learn how to protect myself from these situations before they happened. And then he explained to me that I was drawing attention to myself every time that I asked to be excused during a graphic sex scene in a film he showed in class, or every time that I blushed and acted uncomfortable. And that other students were picking up on my discomfort and responding to it with behavior like NG’s. “You need to learn not to sweat the small stuff,” he said.
And here’s the thing: I bought it. Hook, line, and sinker. I even thanked him for telling me this information – I said I had no idea I’d been drawing that kind of attention to myself! By the time my mother showed up, we had already “resolved” the situation, and since I seemed fine and even happy, when Drew White suggested we call off the meeting, she agreed.
See what he did there? He got out of any additional trouble he might have gotten into if the full details of his mishandling had come out during a conference with a seasoned teacher from another school district, who definitely would have recognized how off all his actions were and wouldn’t have dropped it based on the explanation he gave me.
It was only later, when I told a friend what Drew White had “explained” to me, and the friend responded, “So he blamed you,” that I recognized the truth.
But I didn’t know what to do. I’d already had that “conference” with him, and nothing good had come of it. Merely reporting it had made things worse, since NG had friends in class who were mad at me now. And as a teenager, I didn’t recognize the resources I had for addressing this issue.And by now the issue wasn’t even NG’s behavior. NG had already backed off somewhat, so the bigger issue was what Drew White had done.
If I could go back in time and change anything, I would have gone straight to the principal after that one-on-one meeting with him. There was a committee that would have looked into the allegation of sexual harassment and would have mediated things with NG. And while I don’t think Drew White would have been fired over his mishandling of things, I think he would have been reprimanded and would have been given training on how to respond to those types of concerns the next time a student brought them to him.
And perhaps more teachers would have had their eye on him, knowing that he’d engaged in such blatant manipulation and victim-blaming. My school had a strong feminist presence in the English department, and if I’d told any one of the female English teachers my story, I can guarantee they would have helped me figure out whom to report his behavior to.
Instead, I remained closed-lipped about what NG had done and about what Drew White had done to “handle” it. He was still my teacher, an authority figure. Still in charge of the fall play that I auditioned for every year. And I still didn’t want to cause serious problems for NG. Imagine that – the kid was sexually harassing me, but I was trying to protect him from any serious consequences. But NG, now that I think about it, didn’t really back off entirely. I remember at one point I was in the kiln room talking with my art teacher, who was incidentally one of my favorite teachers, and out of the corner of my eye I could see that NG had walked up to the doorway. I didn’t see what NG was doing, but my art teacher snapped, “NG, I can see you in my peripheral vision! Knock it off!” and NG stopped whatever it was. I’m guessing it wasn’t anything as blatant as what he’d been doing in Drew White’s class, since my art teacher didn’t say anything more after that.
And in Drew White’s class for the rest of the semester? Things were pretty intense, mostly from him. My friends and I made no secret of our dislike and distrust toward him. Sometimes he’d talk to female students in ways that seemed blatantly flirtatious, and it was downright creepy, but it’s not like you can report a teacher for vaguely seeming flirty. He also verged on stalking, but again in a way that would have been hard to report. When I was eating in the cafeteria with my friends, some days he walked in and circled our table, along with a couple tables in the vicinity, several times, only to indirectly respond to something we’d said, the next day in class.
Another day, a friend and I were talking quietly in class, but we hadn’t said a word about him, and he turned to us and called from across the room, “Mr. White has very good hearing!”
And then I graduated and never had to see NG or Drew White again. But here’s what I found out several years later: Drew White was in charge of the foreign exchange program with a school in Russia. And he had committed statutory rape against a fifteen year old Russian student. I don’t know how the truth came out, but with her back in Russia, it would have been difficult for anyone to pursue it legally.
Before anyone could fire him, Drew White “retired,” telling everyone, “I have a bad back.” Another teacher told me after the fact that Oyster River teachers no longer referred to back pain as “a bad back,” thanks Drew White using it as code for, “I’m a rapist.”
So, yeah, I wish I’d gotten someone else at the school involved in the sexual harassment situation, once Drew White began addressing it in such inappropriate ways. I don’t blame teenage-me for not doing more about it, though, because teenage-me didn’t understand her options, and there was genuinely a power imbalance between me and Drew White.
What I really wish is that my school had provided training to students on how to recognize sexual harassment and intervene, and on what resources were available to us if that ever happened. And I also wish I’d somehow been able to communicate to teachers and administrators at Oyster River that Drew White was not someone to be trusted around female students. And that if I had communicated that to them, they would have taken me seriously and looked into the matter and would have recognized the signs before he assaulted a fifteen-year-old student.