Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Educator: Yang Zhao
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
We Walked Through
I didn’t really understand what it meant to be a woman until my head slammed into the stone archway behind me and cold calloused hands sunk into my neck. The sound of rock crashing into my skull reverberated in my ears and searing pain shot down my spine. Blood trickled down my waist. As my dark blue jeans slipped inch by inch down to my ankles, I felt a million needles plunging deeper into every inch of my skin. Afterward, I remember wiping off the tears that cascaded down my face as I stood in front of my apartment, where nobody talks about rape.
I was contaminated. My skin suffocated me like cling wrap. I was powerless. My bruises made me feel disgusted to be in my own body. Unable to talk to my parents who called me a slut and my friends who were so distant, I was forced to relive my trauma alone.
I walked down the alleyway at an unacceptable time. My provocative blood-red bodysuit accentuated the curves of my body too sharply. I walked recklessly through the archway without thinking about how tightly my skinny jeans clung to my legs. He approached me, unable to control his instincts with desire in his eyes. When he moved his hands to my chest to force me against the wall, I regretted wearing this outfit. My mother told me my clothes entice men and I should have listened. I could not complain because I was asking for this. As my jeans dropped to my ankles, I knew that I was being punished.
How did I let this happen to me? Every time I replayed the memory, the pain became sharper and the sequence of events blurrier. Was I approaching him or was he approaching me?
Throughout the intolerable pain, reading was my only source of comfort. I combed through stories of other women. I moved one step forward, two steps back. Each time I read a story, I relived mine. I was paralyzed. Nonetheless, I continued to read and started writing myself. I was inspired by the women who focused on the strength of their survival and were empowered to share their stories. I captured every detail and every moment of pain. Writing connected me to the women whose stories I read. I understood their pain and they understood mine. Each and every one of these women were violated, but they didn’t let their rapists control their lives with pain. With every word, my pain became fainter.
Millions of women walked with me through that archway. He walked towards us. He tore into our flesh. He tried to stifle our screams. I could hear Tarana Burke saying, “I hear you.” His body slammed against ours. He pulled our jeans down. He tried to rip us of our dignity, but he could not destroy us. We suffered, but we survived. “I know exactly how you feel that happened to me too.”
I made Tarana’s words my own: “my life does not have to be a sum of these circumstances.” Although we experienced this trauma, we are not alone and that strength keeps our rapists from robbing us of our common humanity. I do not need my family to recognize my pain because I have millions of women beside me. My bruises and blemishes are not markers of weakness but symbols of survival. My survival makes me strong. Being a woman is understanding that we are not alone and that the men who desecrated our bodies do not define our lives.
This is my story.
I looked in the mirror and I traced every bruise and blemish. For the first time in 45 days and 8 hours, I was proud of my womanhood.