When I was about fourteen, when I’d walk home from school, there was a kid on the way to the bus stop that would proposition all the girls who passed him, in very explicit terms, under his breath. The bus stop lay about halfway down the route I took home, and it was on one of those streets that only had a sidewalk on one side. It was too busy a street to make walking in the road a viable proposition, so you had to walk by him, and as he walked very slowly, sooner or later you’d step around him and pass him, and immediately from behind you, in a tone slightly louder than a whisper, you’d hear “hey baby wanna suck my dick hey baby I wanna lick your pussy hey hey wanna suck your tits” in a sort of monotone until you got out of earshot. You learned not to stop to tie your shoes.
It wasn’t just me, of course—he did it to everybody female, except on Wednesdays, when he didn’t show up at all. (You got to appreciate Wednesdays.) Once he got to the bus-stop, he would stand a little way away, leaning against the sign, and maintain this running monolog until the bus arrived. (A friend of mine took the bus, and sometimes I’d wait with her. I never asked if he did it on the bus, too. I assume he probably did.)
This lasted through my freshman and sophomore years. As a junior, I got an internship at a vet in the other direction, but presumably it continued until he was eighteen and no longer the school system’s problem.
More about that in a minute. I was reminded about this the other day when I was reading “Lies My Teacher Told Me” which is actually about American history, and perhaps I’ll talk about that at some point. From mild shock over the state of history teaching, however, I went on to thinking about the failure of schools to teach some extraordinarily vital skills—like, say, “What do I do when somebody creepy/pushy/unwelcome propositions me?”
Case in point—9th grade sex ed. I had a very good, very progressive sex ed program that told us how things worked, how you got pregnant, and showed us all the birth control options at our fingertips. Because of this class, I felt comfortable asking my doctor for the pill some years later. But even in a very good class, we spent a whole lot of time doing (I kid you not) word searches for terms like “epididymus” and “Cowper’s gland” and absolutely no time on things like “signs you are in an abusive relationship” and “how to tell when you are being sexually propositioned and what to do about it.”
To this day, I still generally don’t know if somebody is trying to pick me up until some weeks after the fact, but if you present me with a xeroxed word search, I can circle “Cowper’s gland” with the best of them. And if somebody makes an unwelcome pass that is sufficiently crude to register as “No, seriously, you’re not reading into this, dude really DID just say that,” my first instinct is still to pretend to ignore it and leave the area immediately, because I haven’t a clue what to say or do next, and I really want it not to be happening.
D.A.R.E., generally laughable though it was*, at least did role-playing and showed us videos of kids being Pressured To Take Drugs. In thirty-five years, with extensive exposure to stoners, my entire experience of being pressured to take drugs consisted of the following:
STONER: *passes joint*
ME: “Nah, I’m driving.”
STONER: “Oh, okay.”
*repeat entire sequence some minutes later, owing to short term memory loss on the part of one participant*
I am more than willing to allow that this is not a universal experience, mind you, and some people probably do have terrifyingly aggressive drug pushers pouncing on them–but I would be very surprised if, pound for pound, the number of “people-offering-me-drugs-that-have-made-me-uncomfortable” experiences tips the scale anywhere near “guys-propositioning-me-for-sex-that-have-made-me-uncomfortable.” I had more unwelcome sexual propositions before I was old enough get a learner’s permit than I have had unwelcome drug offers in my entire life.
A class in that would have been nice. I can see all the reasons why it would never, ever make it past the Arbiters of Morality, but I wish it would. A class in “This is how you find who’s in charge at this event/place/whatever and get help.” “This is how you file a police report.” “This is how you ask for help.” Instead we flounder around on our own, and each one of us has to reinvent the wheel.
Case in point–the kid at the bus stop.
There was something wrong with this kid. (Obviously, you say, but no, I mean something wrong in the clinical sense.) I am an artist, not a clinical psychiatrist, and I couldn’t tell you what’s wrong with somebody standing in front of me today, let alone twenty years ago. He had no obvious physical issues, but he wore his skin entirely wrong. Teenage girls have the finely tune senses of a low-status baboon for primate body language, and this kid was off.
I assume he was developmentally disabled in some fashion—nobody knew him from class, and our school had a large special ed department. Therein lay part of the problem, because while it was incredibly obnoxious and very creepy–well–did he know that? Did he think this was something girls liked? Was he even responsible for his actions? Did he even know he was talking out loud?
My fourteen year old self had a thousand and one problems, 99% of which could have been solved by simply not being a dumbass, but this time, I think, her problem was genuine, and I cannot fault her for not coming to any useful conclusion. Because what could she do?
Tell an adult is the usual mantra in this case. I believe I considered it for all of ten seconds, maybe less.
My mother’s solution would have been that it was much too dangerous to walk home from school, and I should wait in the school library for three and a half hours, until five thirty when she could come pick me up. There was no world where this was a viable option for someone with a computer at home. Besides, my mother had some bad stuff going on, and she really didn’t need more crap from me on top of it.
It would never had occurred to me to call the police. This kid had problems. You didn’t call the cops on special ed kids acting out. That was like evil or something. Besides, he had to be harmless, or he wouldn’t be taking the bus by himself, right? (Yes, I weep for my younger self’s faith in the system.)
As for telling the school…no. We were off school property, so they couldn’t possibly have any say in the matter. (My younger self lived in an era when school were rather less interventionist in non-school-related stuff.) And even if I did go to the school, what was I going to say? Nobody knew his name, he wasn’t in any of our classes. Was I going to ask them to do a line-up of the special ed department? Sweet Jesus, no! And even if they did figure out who it was, I was almost certainly going to get a horribly condescending talk about how we have to be understanding of the problems some people face and maybe a talk about how if I’d engage him in conversation, I might make a new friend. (This was, after all, the talk that schools give you about everything else, from bullying to why you have to share your toys, and the only one that younger me had any context for.**) Plus they’d tell my mother.
Thirty-five-year-old me thinks the school might have been able to come up with something a little better than that. She even suspects that, given a description, they most likely would have said “Oh lord, not again!” and the caregiver responsible for the kid in question would have doubled down on acceptable public behavior. But thirty-five-year-old me has greater faith in adults knowing what’s going on than fourteen-year-old me, and I cannot hold her responsible for not believing that adults are capable of understanding what the world is really like.
Telling the kid to knock it off was also discarded as an option. All that primate body-language stuff was against it. This kid obviously did not comprehend the usual rules, and if you confronted him, there was a good chance things would go very bad, very fast. Yes, he might have been shocked and apologized, but he also might have screamed and attacked you, and there was no way that 95lb fourteen-year-old Ursula was going to come out of that in good shape. (This would also have the exciting side-effect of killing my mother dead the minute she got a phone call from the hospital.)
Even if he didn’t completely freak out, he would have noticed you. At the moment, he was an equal-opportunity offender, providing his monolog to any female back that came into his field of vision. But what if he actually singled you out? What if he tried to touch you? What if he followed you, actively, instead of just whispering at you until you were out of range?
What if he burst into tears, and then you’d made a kid with serious mental problems cry, and jesus christ, who does that?
Fourteen-year-old me wanted this not to be happening. She didn’t want to be a teachable moment. She did not want to be part of somebody’s therapy or anybody’s new friend. She just wanted to finally beat Quest for Glory I and to walk home without somebody offering to lick her tits, which, on the scale of human desires, ought to be modest enough ambitions.
I would say about twenty high-school girls, self included, all settled on the same compromise. We ignored him. We walked faster to get by him, we went several feet into the street to avoid him, and then we hurried away (but not running, because everybody knows that if you run, monsters can get you, it’s one of the immutable childhood laws) and we never ever acknowledged that we heard any of the horrible things he said and when we stood at the bus stop, we talked loudly to drown in out.
God help me, there should have been a class. This was such a weirdly specific situation that I don’t know if it would have helped, but maybe one of the lot of us would have thought “Maybe there’s another way.”
Maybe the school would have assigned somebody to walk him to the bus stop. Maybe a kid with a lot of problems would have gotten help. Maybe a lot of things. All I know is that none of us knew what we were supposed to do, so we did the only thing we could think of–and given that the school’s idea of giving us the tools for adult life was word searches for “Cowper’s gland” I can’t find it in my heart to blame any of us for not coming up with a better solution.
But dear lord, it seems like we should be able to do better.
*As I signed the little pledge, in sixth grade, I remember thinking clearly “If I want to do drugs, the fact that I have signed this sheet of paper will have absolutely no effect on me whatsover.”
**If someone’s about to say “But why didn’t you do that?” I will say “If you think fourteen-year-old me was going to turn to a kid whispering explicit sexual things to her and say “Let’s talk!” you are out of your mind.” I would be hard-pressed to do that now, when sex holds all the terror of my sock drawer. Fourteen-year-old me never had a chance.