We can’t seem to go a week without another story of a boy or a man(child) who feels entitled to feminine attention and goes on a murderous rampage when he doesn’t get it. Nor can we seem to break free from the narrative that it’s the girl/woman’s fault for rejecting the murderer.
When I remember the hell I was put through at the hands of a bully and his Goon Squad in the fourth and fifth grades, I wonder how far his campaign of harassment would have gone had we not moved away when we did.
I had changed schools in the summer between grades three and four, so I was, again, the new kid in school.1 Being an introvert, this was always fresh hell.
There was one kid in my new class named Charles. He wore large, thick-framed glasses and frequently wore clothes that can best be compared today to a sort of c-suite business casual. Suit jackets with slacks; sweaters with dickies in the cooler months. This combination may be considered on trend today, but in the 70’s that was the kind of look that got you teased, especially for a kid who was also overweight. My mother battled weight issues her entire life and sympathized with kids like Charles: she suggested that I try to be nice to him since I was a new kid and all. So I did my best to be nice to Charles, or to at least demonstrate benign indifference. I was happier to just plonk myself down in a quiet corner and read my Little House On The Prairie books and not talk to anybody.
It didn’t take long to learn that Charles was really not a nice person at all. In fact, he decided that by my being nice to him he was entitled to my attention whenever he wanted it. I made it clear to him that, as much as I did not want to be mean to him, I also did not want to hang out with him.
He ramped up his campaign of creepy harassment during the year but I was blessed with a wonderful Grade Four teacher, Miss B, who would allow me to stay in the classroom and read at recess as often as possible. I was and remain forever grateful to her for giving me sanctuary. She was the one adult in this scenario who didn’t fail me.
In Grade Five, the torment got much worse.
Constantly being a new kid in school subjected me to a certain amount of bullying, so by Grade Five, out of necessity, I was quite athletic, able to outrun nearly everyone in my grade and make myself small enough to fit into small spaces. So whenever Charles demanded my attention and Miss B’s classroom wasn’t an option I was able to easily get away from him.
His solution was to recruit three of his buddies, sixth and seventh graders, who were twice my size. Charles’ Goon Squad was tasked with hunting me down on the playground and pinning me down so he could kiss me on the mouth.
This went on nearly every recess period: school staff did nothing to protect me, but a few friends did their best to help run them off. I was able to outrun the Goon Squad and find places to hide most of the time but they caught me twice. My stomach lurches whenever I remember the last time that I was cornered and pinned to the ground. I kept trying to turn my face away from Charles’ sweaty advance and felt the hand of one of the Goon Squad sliding up my leg. When the hand neared the top of my thigh I exploded and launched myself from the ground, flailing at anything near me that looked like a human male.
I broke free and though I’m fairly certain that the Goon Squad did not try to chase me, I kept running until I found the tiniest pipe I could cram my body into. My hair was matted and my blouse and skirt were soaked in sweat and covered in dirt from being pinned to the ground. There was blood, but I wasn’t entirely sure where it came from. The pipe was dark and the cool walls soothed my sweaty, gritty back. I was alert to every sound around the pipe and rolled myself into a tighter ball when I heard any voices or footsteps within yards of my concrete sanctuary. I tried so hard to not cry because I didn’t want the sound to alert anyone to my presence. I cried as quietly as I could and didn’t move from that pipe until long after the bell ending recess rang.
I got in trouble from Mrs. H for returning to class late. She knew the problems that I had with Charles and his Goon Squad, but she placed the blame squarely on me. According to Mrs. H., Charles’ “affection” was cute and maybe I shouldn’t be so high and mighty and “be nice” to him. Not even the sight of a little girl standing in front of her, face striped where tears cut a path through the dirt from the schoolyard, and clothes covered in dirt and sweat, was enough to convince her that this was not some cute playground flirting. This was sexual assault. The fact that it was perpetrated on a child by other children will never change that fact. The fact that it was ENCOURAGED by adults is sickening.
Instead of teaching the boys in my class—Charles especially—that girls are not toys to be played with whenever they want attention, she perpetuated the notion that girls don’t deserve agency over their bodies or to whom they give their attention or affection. He “likes” me, therefore, I should just submit myself to him. Other than Miss B, school officials had no interest in making sure school was a safe place, even after my mom (who finally realized the extent of the harassment and abuse I was suffering) brought it to their attention. The administration’s solution–besides forbidding Miss B from giving me a safe place to go during recess–was for me to just put up with it and hope that Charles would grow out of his obsession. That my grades suffered and I was always angry and stressed out was somehow MY fault because I refused to “go along to get along”.
The day after that schoolyard incident, Charles came over to me and showed me the claw marks I had allegedly left on his arm2. He told me that he was probably going to get skin cancer from them and then he said his parents were going to sue my mother. My mother was a single parent and we didn’t have money–especially not enough to deal with a lawsuit. But that’s how bullies operate: they demand attention, then abuse the object of their obsession–physically and emotionally–when they don’t get it. And bullies center themselves as the victim. Always.
My mom and I moved out of Arizona not long afterward and though I have moved on with my life, the repeated harassment and assault left lifelong scars that burn with every new story of a guy who shoots up a school, or a club, or who runs down women on a sidewalk because women don’t just submit to his demand for attention. I often wonder if I Google his name if I’ll find stories of other girls and women he abused later in life because I somehow doubt he would have outgrown it. Part of me doesn’t want to know because if he has continued his campaign of harassment and assault into adulthood I’d feel guilty for not stopping him in Grade Five.
How fucked up is that? I wasn’t the person chasing him around school. I wasn’t the adult who refused to step in and stop his behavior (and the behavior of his Goon Squad) and retrain him to not be a fucking creep.
The fact that we live in a culture where men and boys believe they are entitled to sex–with or without consent–is nothing new. We just have a fancy term for it now: “toxic masculinity”.
The media, especially, needs to stop giving quarter to these man/children. We are well past needing to understand the mentality behind these violent incidents3. It’s the same goddamn story and it has been for a very long time. Every few weeks they just pull up the old file and copy/paste the story into a new one and do a global replace on names and places and dates.
These man/children don’t deserve to be eulogized in sympathetic, hand-wringing feature stories about what a “quiet” “shy” guy he was and how people teased him or bullied him and a girl he liked didn’t return his feelings–or submit to them. Maybe their behavior wouldn’t be such a shock to the people around them if girls and women weren’t discouraged from coming forward about harassment and assault, or if they were believed when they do.
Stop protecting these abusers’ feelings. And for fuck’s sake STOP ARMING THEM.
1 I was ALWAYS the new kid in school. By the time I graduated high school I had attended thirteen different schools–five of them between Grade 5 and Grade 6. No, I wasn’t a military brat, and we weren’t in the circus, either.