The first time I felt unsafe around a boy, I was thirteen. And I remember thinking, how did I get in this position? I did everything right.
It’s only now, almost two decades later, that I’m starting to gain the perspective I need to answer that question.
My mother always told us, that her wish for us, more than anything else in the world, is that we grew up to be kind. Kindness was put above intelligence and success and looks. It’s not wrong to teach your children this. I agree with her philosophy that there isn’t enough kindness in the world, so by raising caring and conscientious children, she was doing her part.
I believe I lived up to, and maybe even exceeded, her expectations. It wasn’t all learned though, I think I was also born this way. Naturally empathetic. When someone is hurting around me, I hurt. I pay close attention to the feelings of others. I go out of my way to make things easy and comfortable for everyone else. If I thought I might have inflicted any unintentional pain on anyone else, it made my stomach hurt. It kept me up at night.
In a lot of ways, nothing has changed. Except I now have an added piece to the puzzle of being kind. And that piece that I was missing back then was protection.
In this ideal world that my mother dreamt of, where everyone is kind, you wouldn’t need protection. You could be open and loving and nothing bad would ever happen to you. That’s not our world. And while I hate the idea of teaching my own children to be world-weary and pessimistic, I think it is important to teach them: you must always look after yourself first, because you can’t trust other people to always do it for you.
My kindness got me many kudos in my young life. I was a nurturing older sister. I was the kid who always got paired with the intellectually disabled or behaviorally challenged peers for class assignments. These things made me proud. They still do.
In third grade, there was a boy named Charles that was picked on a lot. He was shy. He had some medical needs that necessitated certain accommodations to be made. I still think of him as a turtle. He’d get picked on, and he’d sort of draw himself inward and put on this bitter, angry face and he would try to repel the mean words and the exclusions of others.
Here’s the thing, Charles was a really nice kid. I really did like him. I think I was the only one. When he was called to talk to the school counselor, I went with him. We’d talk about the social dynamics of the classroom. I think by being there, I made it easier for him to talk. I felt so proud to be his counseling buddy.
One day, as we were walking in a line up the stairs, there was some pushing and shoving. Charles didn’t instigate any of it. In fact I think he was shoved on the stairs and he lost his balance, falling into the classmate behind him. That classmate’s glasses fell off and broke. Back in the classroom, when we discussed the incident. The entire class positively crucified Charles for breaking this kid’s glasses. And I spoke up. I was the only person in the entire class not to jump on the bandwagon.
When I think about that, I’m still proud of third grade me.
In middle school, there was this boy, Andrew. I didn’t have any classes with him. I can’t even remember how we might have met. But I was nice to him.
He never had clean clothes. He smelled bad. He was awkward. And every day, at the end of the school day, he met me at my locker.
He’d come up behind me and put his arms around me, grasping around my shoulders and weighing me down. He’d walk me to my bus. And he wouldn’t let go of me until the very last second.
I was so uncomfortable with this. I didn’t want to be touched by this boy. And I was so ashamed to admit to myself that I was embarrassed by being seen with him. That was such a mean thought. And I needed to be kind.
This happened every day. Every day, I was touched by this boy. My personal space was encroached, and I felt guilty about hating it.
Thirteen-year-old me didn’t think I could do anything about it. Because telling a teacher or my parents would be mean. I would seriously hurt his feelings. I would create conflict. So I sucked it up.
And really, the thing that still kills me is, I was probably one of the only people who was nice to Andrew. I got the sense that his home life was troubled, though he didn’t ever really talk about it. I think he was literally clinging to me, because I was the only person who ever showed him kindness. And I don’t think he wished me harm, but he harmed me anyway.
One day, he told me he was moving away. I feigned disappointment, though, of course, I was happy. He asked if he could write to me. I said yes. Of course I did. Because what would the harm in that be.
“Oh!” he said when I had written down my address, “that is right near me! I could ride my bike to your house.”
And I’m sure I mumbled something in response. Something like “Oh, that’s cool.” I’m sure I was careful not to invite him over. Although I’m also sure, I probably considered it, because it would have been the kind thing to do. Back in third grade with Charles, I often went to his house after school. Only now that I’m a mother, do I look back and realize that these were exciting days for Charles’s mother. She’d always make us really special snacks. We read Tintin together, and when I enjoyed it, they bought me my own copy. And though I didn’t understand French, I adored it.
I did not invite Andrew over, but it didn’t matter, because he came over anyway.
I was home alone in the early afternoons. My parents were at work. My younger brother still in school, my older brother at football or track practice. And I was definitely not allowed to have anyone over when my parents weren’t home.
Thank god for that rule, because it was the only thing that made me feel safe.
The same day that he had gotten my address, he must have sprinted home from the bus stop, gotten on his bike and pedaled over to my house as quickly as he could. I had only been home for a short time before I heard the knock on the door.
It was awful. I felt so awkward. I let myself outside, because he wasn’t allowed in.
And here, in my thirty-year-old perspective, I know that I should have stayed inside and told him I wasn’t available and he should go home. But then, I thought, better not be rude or mean, you might hurt his feelings.
So I went outside. We sat on my front steps, his arms around me, making me feel small and sick. And when I felt like I had spent enough time with him as to seem kind and friendly I remember I told him that I needed to do math homework.
“Oh,” he said. “I’ll help you with math.”
And I still remember my reply, because it wasn’t nice. I said, “but I’m two years ahead of you in math.”
“In that case, you can help me with math homework.”
I did not know how to get out of it. He had totally destroyed my grasp at a reasonable excuse. Blessedly, my phone rang inside.
“I’ll be right back,” I told him.
I went inside and answered the phone. It was my dad checking in. I remember telling him, in a small and frightened voice that this boy Andrew was here.
No sooner had I said that, then I realized Andrew had let himself in my house. I had a jolt of panic, because I had told him before that he was not allowed in. And even more horrifying to me at the time, he might have heard me tell my father he was over, and my tone of voice might have hurt his feelings.
“Is he in the house?” my dad asked.
“Yes,” I just barely managed to whisper.
“He needs to leave.”
“Okay.” I hung up the phone, and Andrew’s arms were around my shoulders again. “That was my dad, he said I can’t have you in the house.” Saying this took all of my strength. And I was very afraid. I felt unsafe. And here’s the thing, I was a young thirteen-year-old. I was still more than a year away from getting my period, and to really knowing anything about sex beyond the basics.The idea of sexual assault had never even crossed my mind. But something in me was frightened of something. And I already felt small and cowed by the unwanted physical contact we had had.
I still feel small when I think about it. My stomach still lurches and I cringe.
“Okay. Well. Maybe I’ll see come by tomorrow.”
“Sorry,” I said, as I walked him to the door.
Nothing beyond that ever happened. There were other times he came over and I made excuses. He continued to plaster himself on me after school. I continued to be embarrassed. I guess eventually he did move away.
I was ashamed at the animosity I felt toward him. I don’t fault my dad for not following up. I honestly can’t remember if he did. But I almost certainly didn’t feel like I should tell my parents about it. I felt like I had done something wrong to let him come over. Even though I didn’t consent to any of it.
I can now see how these issues are so important. I wish I had told my parents how I was feeling about Andrew. I wish I had asked my mother if telling him to let go of me would be unkind. Because I know now what they would say. I’m sure they’d be startled or horrified and tell me to look after myself first. That I didn’t need to consent to anything I didn’t want to do.
But the reality is, I didn’t want to be anything other than kind and giving and nurturing in their eyes as well as mine.
With my own kids, who are still too young to really understand these nuances, I teach them consent and kindness. I teach them to stand up for themselves but to not inflict undue pain. But pain happens. It happens regardless. And I’d rather it not be my kids that are getting hurt.
I consider myself lucky. I have never been a victim of rape or sexual assault. The thing is, that does not mean that I have never felt unsafe or violated. And I doubt there is any woman out there who hasn’t. In college, I remember bringing male friends with me to any party I attended and asking them to please put their arm around me because I didn’t want to be hit on or touched by anyone I didn’t trust. I was lucky to have men I trusted, I always have. But still, I gave my number to boys I had no desire to talk with. I felt I owed them a piece of myself.
Kindness is a tricky thing. But never, not ever, do you owe anyone a piece of yourself. I hope my children always feel empowered to keep themselves safe. I hope they know they can tell me if they feel unsafe or anxious or sad.
Kindness is important. Consent is important. Empowerment is important. Safety is important. You should never have to sacrifice any of these things for another.