Like many women I know, I have a metoo story. It set a precedent for me. Take a walk with me back to 1993. Meet 12-year-old me. I’m beyond awkward. I have braces with different color rubber bands. Puberty hasn’t hit me yet, and I have a god awful 90s haircut. I haven’t quite figured out where I fit in. I’m in 7th grade.
I went to a small catholic grade school in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I wasn’t interested in boys and they weren’t interested in me. I spent more time arguing with boys about football than flirting with them. There were less than 10 boys in my entire grade.
Back then, computer class involved breaking up into groups in a computer lab and playing games like, “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?”. One random day, our teacher broke us up to play a game. She walked out of the room and said she would be right back. She wouldn’t return until right before the class ended. I don’t know what was going on in her personal life that day, but it was more important than teaching. She had partnered me with 2 boys that I did not like. Let’s call them Alex and Josh. Alex’s mom was the 8th grade teacher at my school. Alex pretty much did whatever he wanted. He never got in trouble. Josh was his sidekick and laughed at everything he said and did. They honestly reminded me of Beavis & Butthead.
I logged us onto the computer we were sharing and started to read the instructions. Alex interrupted and said, “I have a better game to play. It’s called Nervous. I’m gonna touch you and if you want me to stop, just say nervous and I’ll stop.” I had heard of this game from girlfriends in school. I had no desire to play this game. I said I didn’t want to, but he persisted. I remember his hand rubbing my thigh. I remember pushing it away and saying no. Josh laughed the entire time. I kept getting up and pretending to need something from my desk. More boys around the room got wind of what Alex was doing and they all peeked over, laughing while it was going on. At one point, Alex grabbed my hand and put it on himself over his pants. I yanked it away and asked him to stop. His next move was to quickly stick his hands on my breasts. Again, I pushed them away and asked him to stop. He just laughed and continued. It was agony. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t want it, but I was just a kid, and there was no teacher in sight. I remember crying on the bus ride home. I remember girls on the bus calling me a slut.
I came home from school and I told my mom everything that had happened. I didn’t want to go back to school the next day. My mom wanted to march down to school and kill Alex. I insisted that she let me handle it. I just wanted the whole thing to go away. She said that I was old enough to know what was right and what was wrong. Standing up to a bully takes courage and she knew I would do the right thing. I wasn’t so sure. I barely slept the night before school.
I went to school with every intention of moving on and acting like nothing had ever happened. I got to school early that day. There were a few kids in class and one of the boys started singing, “Tell me lies. Tell me sweet little lies.” Then, he called me a slut and a liar. That was all it took. I snapped. Our home room teacher walked in the room. He was the only male teacher in the school and he was my favorite teacher. I asked if I could speak with him in the hall. He asked me if everything was okay. “No” I said while shaking. “Mr. Bellino, when I was in computer class yesterday, Alex was touching me and when I asked him to stop, he wouldn’t.” His face looked enraged. He told me I was brave. He said, “Thank you for trusting me. In order for me to help you, we have to tell the principal. I will be by your side the whole time. Do you think you can do that?” We marched to the principal’s office (a nun) and he said, “Tell Sister what you just told me.” I repeated myself.
The rest of the day involved various kids being called out into the hall and questioned all day long. The computer teacher acted shocked. She asked me how it happened under her watch. Meanwhile, she wasn’t in the classroom during the entire period. I simply said, “You weren’t there.”
The boys around the room started yelling at me, asking why I had brought them into it. I hadn’t. I’d only mentioned Alex. He threw them all under the bus, insisting they had told him about this game and they’d played it with other girls. My mom was called down to school. A little before lunch, I was called out of the room and asked to go into the church. As I walked down the aisle, I saw Alex and his mother (the 8th grade teacher), let’s call her Mrs. Alvorado. My Mom was sitting there too. I slowly walked down the aisle. My Mom looked so proud of me, but I’d never been more scared in my life. Mrs. Alvorado ran that school. She’d been teaching 8th grade there forever. She had a reputation of being tough on girls. The next part, I barely remember. I just know we walked out of the church vestibule agreeing that Alex being suspended for 3 days was sufficient. He mumbled, “Sorry.” under his breath and refused to make eye contact with me.
After his suspension ended, teachers kept our desks separated. We still attended every class together. As time went by, Alex got more and more comfortable and went back to his troublemaking ways. He called me names under his breath, when no one was paying attention. Everything that came out of my mouth invoked an eye roll or some joke on my behalf. Worst of all, was the judgment that came from female teachers and kids in my grade.
My grade school went up to 8th grade, then it was off to high school. I just had to get through one more year. I had a best friend who remained loyal to me through it all. If it wasn’t for her, I’m not sure I would have made it. Over the summer, my mom was told that we had two options for 8th grade. I could either switch classes and have Mrs. Alvorado as my teacher or stay in the same home room class with Alex. If I switched classes, I wouldn’t be with any of my friends. These were all the same kids I’d been with for years. I was terrified of Mrs. Alvorado. I had been handling Alex’s harassment for months. If I had to, I could endure it, but I didn’t feel comfortable trusting Mrs. Alvorado to grade me with an unbiased viewpoint. My grades were extremely important to me. I told my mom that I’d rather stick with the same home room.
Eighth grade was one of the toughest years of my childhood. I could go on and on about it. I cried so many days. I never wanted to go to school. The female teachers treated me differently after that. They were friends with Mrs. Alvorado. I felt like they didn’t believe me, or they were judging me for tattling. I learned at an early age that telling the truth and exposing inappropriate behavior resulted in more hardship for the victim than the perpetrator. It shaped me. It was the culture of not tattling.
Not everyone in this story was a villain. Mr. Bellino checked in on me often. He wasn’t my home room teacher in 8th grade, but he wanted to make sure I was okay. He was more supportive than any other faculty member in the school. I’ll never forget him and all he did for me. Teachers have the ability to make a huge impact on our children.
I ended up at an all girls high school in the city after that. Not one girl from my grade school went to my high school and that’s the way I wanted it. We ended up moving into the city and I put it all behind me.
As I grew up and attended college, I had a summer internship. We had a team building day and alcohol was involved. I was under age, so I didn’t drink. At the end of the night, I ended up in a car with one of the male managers. He shouldn’t have been driving. He pulled into a gas station and tried to stick his hand up my skirt. I pushed him off and asked if we could please leave. Thankfully, he stopped and we drove home. I quit my job the very next day. I ran away from it, because I knew coming forward wasn’t an option. I couldn’t bare the idea of seeing him every day. I knew it wouldn’t solve anything and people might not believe me.
This is the culture I grew up in. I learned at an early age that telling the truth can make things harder for you. I think about all of the victims coming forward now. I pray that they’re being protected, that they are not being met with judgment. We have to do better. I want my girls to grow up in a culture that supports truth tellers.
I worry about them. Haley is affectionate. She will talk to anyone. She is caring and giving. I love all those things about her. I see so many great things headed her way in the future, but I worry. I worry that someone will take advantage of her. Then, there’s Sienna. I try not to think too far ahead, but I am terrified to send her to school. Did you know kids with intellectual disabilities are 4 to 10 times more likely to be victims of abuse? How will I protect her? What if she isn’t able to communicate yet? I know I can’t mentally go there, but it’s looming. It’s the future and I have to be ready for it.
This post was one of the hardest things I have ever had to write. I have gone back and forth about sharing it dozens of times. Miscarriages and infertility…..no problem. Sienna and how amazing she is…..get me a computer so I can write. This, well….this stuff is hard. Even 25 years later, it’s hard. Stuff like this leaves scars. It doesn’t go away. For me, the aftermath of what happened was harder than what actually happened. Let’s support all women coming forward, baring their souls. It takes courage to put yourself out there. I applaud all women coming forward in this movement. You are leading the way for my daughters. Thank you. I’d be a fraud if I didn’t share my story too. #metoo