I went to a Catholic school named after the Virgin Mary, when I was nine and ten years old.
The school’s playground monitors were called “prefects,” an aggrandizement I have not heard used at other schools in America. They were usually students’ mothers working on a volunteer basis. The school usually gave them a whistle, and no training. Sometimes, they didn’t even get a whistle.
The prefects kept order on the playground by always punishing both sides of a fight– always. If two kids were fighting, they were considered equally guilty and punished with a long time-out, then compelled to shake hands and say “sorry.” I was punished like that a lot– whether I was guilty of escalating conflict, which I was from time to time, returning slaps for name-calling or something of that nature; or whether I was only defending my safety which also happened often enough. If I got caught in a fight in front of a teacher, the situation was worse. I’d be kept in at recess as punishment, my parents would be contacted, and I’d have a miserable afternoon of scolding at home. Sometimes a prefect gave me a time out and then told the teacher, who told my parents and punished me again for good measure. This happened no matter what the context.
One afternoon, three boys attacked me. I’m sure I hadn’t done anything to provoke them. They came out of nowhere while I was walking along the edge of the parking lot, making up stories. They shoved me into a corner formed by the l-shaped building and the back of a concrete staircase. There were brick walls on three sides of me, and a wall of young men on the fourth. I could have climbed the wall of the staircase to escape if I’d been taller and more nimble; as it was, I was trapped.
I screamed for help but nobody came.
The biggest boy twisted and wrenched my forearm to make the skin go red and clawed it up with painful fingernail pinches he called “spider bites.” He described the various kinds of pain he was inflicting as the other boys watched in appreciation. I used the only self-defense tactic I could think of– I swiped the littlest boy across the cheek with my own fingernails, and ran away through the gap he left when he stumbled back. As a grown woman, the only way I would advise my own daughter to do things differently is that I would tell her to go for the biggest boy, and to box his ear instead of scratching. But no one taught elementary school girls self defense in those days, at least not at Our Lady of Peace Catholic School in Columbus, Ohio.
That afternoon, before she began reading our daily chapter of a Lewis Sachar book, the teacher addressed me in front of the entire class including my attackers. She said that someone had heard me screaming for help, and come to tell her about it after recess. She asked if I was all right.
I thought of the way I’d scratched the littlest boy to get away, and about the punishments inflicted on kids who fought whether they were defending themselves or not. I thought about what my parents would say if I got punished again.
“We were just sort of… playing,” I said.
The teacher nodded, and began reading aloud.
I escaped punishment. I got to sit with my class and listen to a Lewis Sachar story. My parents weren’t angry with me that night, and I was allowed to watch Wishbone with my siblings instead of being sent to my room. That was my reward for lying.
That was how a Catholic school taught me that you shouldn’t defend yourself, nor tell anyone in authority if you’ve been assaulted.
No, it wasn’t sexual assault. Maybe the same bullies would have escalated to sexual assault instead of just inflicting pain later; I was taken out of school to homeschool for other reasons the next year, so I can’t say. Still, the lesson nags me every day.
How early do we teach children that asking for help gets people to say “both sides?”
To insist that the victim be punished for somehow bring the assault on herself, and punished again and again until she learns to pretend it was just play?
“Yes, he should have had self-control, but what did she do to provoke him? And why is she trying to ruin his reputation now?”
Months ago, I found out that a priest I know and respected very much, whom I’d sought out for confession many times because I thought he was reasonable and kind, had allegedly informed a rape survivor that the rape was really brought on by her behavior. He told her to go to confession. And then he went to the rapist and talked to him without his victim knowing, told him what she’d said– he put her in further danger.
This was the priest that gave the homily at Michael’s and my wedding.