Yesterday afternoon I got a phone call from the social worker at the girls’ school. This didn’t set off any alarm bells; when you have a kid with an IEP (which we do, for Eleanor and her language disorder), sometimes you get calls from the social worker to schedule or follow up on meetings. I assumed this was one of those calls.
“I’m calling to let you know that Eleanor and another female student experienced some behavior from some boys that was making them uncomfortable,” the social worker said.
“Oh?” I said, small red-alert lights flashing in my mental peripheral vision.
“Yes, Eleanor was uncomfortable talking about it. She was embarrassed, but she was able to write it down in enough detail that we could question the boys, and they admitted the behavior.”
“What … what exactly happened?”
“It sounds like the boys were whispering things in the girls ears and making thrusting motions at the girls.”
“Oh, no.” Sinking feeling. “That’s not good.”
“Well, Eleanor was very helpful and we have encouraged her to tell an adult right away the next time something like this happens.”
“Um, how many times has this BEEN happening?!”
“There was apparently one incident last week in music class, and then again this week. We have called all the parents involved. Eleanor was very helpful.”
I got off the phone in a daze, sent off a text titled “MOTHERFUCKER” to Chad, who was out of town on business, and promptly burst into tears. Because she’s NINE. And they are already talking about THE NEXT TIME. And of course they are, because of course there will be a next time. Of course there will be a next time that she is made uncomfortable, or worse, just by virtue of her precious, beautiful, female body.
You know it’s coming, as the mother of a daughter. I mean, as a parent of any kid, you know the time will come when your kid encounters prejudice or bias or just plain-old assholery from the world, and you won’t be there to kick the assholes back to where they came from. But especially as a mother of daughters, you know that some – maybe even most – of that ugliness will be related somehow to her femaleness, and to the seriously fucked up sexual attitudes we’ve developed in this culture. Maybe I should have been ready for it earlier, only you can’t ever be ready for it. You cannot be ready for the punch to the gut that reminds you that no, you can’t protect your daughters from it. They’re going to have to run the gauntlet themselves, just like you did.
So I managed to calm down before I went to pick the girls up from their after school program, wondering if Eleanor would want to talk about it or if she would be too embarrassed, running through all the various worst-case scenarios that my anxiety-driven demons could come up with. (Would she be permanently scarred? Unable to make eye contact? Wearing a huge scarlet A on her chest?)(Note: anxiety-driven demons are usually way, way off base. Also apparently they read too much Nathaniel Hawthorne.)
Eleanor was her usual buoyant self, chattering with her friends, forgetting her shoes, excited to see me. Anxiety levels decreasing. As we’re getting in the car, I say “I hear you had kind of a tough day today.”
“Oh, the social worker called you?”
“Yeah,” I say, like it was totally no big deal and we’re discussing the weather or something. “What happened with those boys?”
“Oh, mom, they were being totally inappropriate and saying REALLY inappropriate things and it was making me super uncomfortable. They were doing it to all the girls. Like sex stuff and penises and what boys do and making noises (she made uh-uh groans and thrusting motions while a piece of my soul slowly died), and it was gross.”
“Yuck. That sounds SUPER gross. That is not ok for those boys to do that. So who spoke up about it?”
Eleanor gave a little half grin. “I did.”
I high-fived her and told her I was so proud of her, and that she did exactly what she was supposed to do. And we talked about how sexual harassment feeds on silence and that lots of girls don’t tell people about it because they feel embarrassed and like they did something wrong or they might get in trouble, but how it’s NEVER your fault if someone makes you feel uncomfortable, and it’s not tattling to tell grown-ups about that stuff. And she said it was really weird to be in a room with three grownups (the principal, the vice-principal and the social worker) and just one kid (her) and how they kept telling her it was a “safe space” but it was totally embarrassing to talk about so finally she just wrote it down. And I told her again that the social worker had said how helpful it was that Eleanor was able to do that, and again how proud I was of her and that she did exactly the right thing.
And we went to get dinner and talk about other things, like the upcoming caucus, and weekend plans, and normal life stuff. And I came out of the evening an odd mixture of sad, angry, proud and hopeful. But like, 45% sad, 60% angry, 75% proud, and 32% hopeful. 212% feelings. THIS IS WHAT IT’S LIKE IN HERE, PEOPLE.
Hug your babies. Raise your boys to respect. Raise your girls to speak up. Hope for a better tomorrow. Cry for the hard today. Love wins.
(This post was written with Eleanor’s permission.)