It was September. I was 14 and had just started my freshman year of high school. I was under-developed, insecure, naïve, and a rule follower. I was still trying to find my way both figuratively and literally. On this particular day, I got lost trying to find my English class. The bell was ringing as I ducked in at the last minute and grabbed a seat in the back row. The class was chaotic, the teacher already having lost control. This was the “C” level class. In my high school they divided us into three groups: “A” classes were for the high achievers, “C” for the delinquents, and “B” for all the rest. Thinking back to all of those standardized tests that I never took seriously in middle school, it’s no wonder I ended up where I was.
Those movies where the protagonist isn’t paying attention and she wanders into the wrong room, dark alley, frat house, etc.? That’s how I see it now. I stumbled into the wrong seat in a class I didn’t belong in. Their names were Shawn and Michelle. They turned around to look at me. I smiled, because that’s what I always did. That’s what I was trained to do. “Smile Susie!” It was a mistake. Because it made me look exactly like what I was: prey.
I knew who they were. You don’t live in the same small town your whole life, go through the school system with the same kids, and not know most everyone. They were a couple. He was a football player and a stoner. She was beautiful, but the kind of beauty you expect to see in a 25-year-old, not a high school freshman. In hindsight, I almost feel sorry for her. Almost.
They started in on me immediately. Words that no one could hear above the ruckus in the classroom. Him keeping it purely physical, telling me what he’d do to me. Words, that if they were uttered today, would qualify as a rape threat. Her words were more an overall appraisal of me: ugly, bitch, cunt, stupid. On and on it went for the entire class period, as I sat there in paralyzed silence. A relentless spew of threats and cruelty. I look at it now with a detached sort of wonderment, but I’ve never forgotten how terrified I was in that moment. How trapped and alone and powerless I felt sitting in that chair. How it was only 45 minutes, but it felt interminable.
I’ve discounted it over the years. Played it down. Justified it. It wasn’t physical after all. Only 45 minutes. Just words. Not like they injured me or anything. They were just bullies. Everyone’s been subjected to bullying at some point, right? The experience made me stronger, yes? Some might ask why I didn’t just get up and walk away? Because it was 1977. And good girls followed the rules. They certainly didn’t leave in the middle of class. Or I didn’t anyway. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to do that. I’ve raised my daughters differently.
I came home after school that day to a blessedly empty house. I lay down on my bed and cried and cried and cried. Feeling desperate because I didn’t know what to do. I certainly wasn’t going to tell anyone. Who to tell anyway? I didn’t yet have the type of close friendships that I’d eventually form. The thought of telling my parents was mortifying. School administrators? No way. Phrases like “sexual harassment” and “hostile work environment” were not yet a part of our national vernacular.
All I knew, was I had to find a way out. Years later, one of my supervisors at work praised me by saying “Susan always figures out how to get the job done.” It has always been something I’ve prided myself on – that I figure a way out. That experience with Shawn and Michelle, awful as it was, may have been a factor in the honing of my fight or flight response. That is the sick way I’ve justified their actions over the years. As if I owe them a fucking thank you card.
Though figure a way out, I did. I convinced my parents that I was in the wrong class: the teacher was bad, and I wasn’t being challenged. It wasn’t a total lie. A call to my guidance counselor was all it took to get me in with the “B Listers”. After that, I was pretty much able to avoid Shawn and Michelle. In a school of 1200 students, it can be fairly easy to make yourself invisible, or at least beige. I did let my guard down once though, and Michelle cornered me in the girls bathroom. Fortunately, by then I had learned how to walk away. I did however become extremely adept at restroom navigation for the remainder of my high school years.
Eventually, Michelle and Shawn broke up, and they forgot about me. A couple of years later, Michelle showed up in my history class. She demonstrated no memory of me at all. Rumor has it she was pretty heavily into drugs at that point. It could have been that or, more likely, I was simply sport for her and Shawn. Meaningless cruel fun for them, trauma for 14-year old me.
Michelle disappeared after that, didn’t graduate with our class. I’m not sure what became of her. Shawn popped back into my life courtesy of social media and then at our 30-year high school reunion. It was unsettling seeing him. This now grown man who had so affected me as a young girl. It was odd listening to people comment on what a sweet guy he was. It took only a bit of liquid courage for me to confront him. Naturally, he didn’t remember me or what he had done. When I mentioned Michelle, he had the gall to commiserate with me, “oh, I lost a lot of friends because of her”. Sure, blame it on the chick.
I’ll give him this much – though he didn’t remember anything, he showed some genuine remorse that he’d been the cause of my pain. And while he probably shouldn’t have said “well, you seem to have turned out fine anyway”, he did apologize several times. Even had the DJ play my favorite song. It was something. Or maybe I’m cutting him too much slack. At the time though, it was cathartic.
After that, he friended me on Facebook. We had a pleasant banter for a few years even though we were diabolically opposed politically: he was a full on #MAGA Trump supporter. Still, he would check in with me occasionally just to see how I was; later, I would donate to his go fund me page when he received his cancer diagnosis. Eventually, the pleasant banter turned ugly. It could’ve been politics or his illness or just him. I don’t think he was a bad person. I think he did stupid things a very long time ago and I was the unfortunate recipient for 45 minutes. Still, he was now making me uncomfortable, and I was no longer 14, so I blocked him. And, that was cathartic too. A few months after that, I heard he passed away.
They say living well is the best revenge. And I’ve lived very well, better than anyone including myself could have predicted when I was 14. So, I guess Shawn was right. I did turn out fine.