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Leng, Sophia, Growing Up As a Girl- the Things You Learn


Sophia Leng
Age: 13, Grade: 8

School Name: Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Educator: Derek Kulnis

Category: Poetry

Growing Up As a Girl- the Things You Learn

the hush of well meaning relatives when they see eleven-year-old you dressed in light summer attire— 
their thoughts are plainly revealed: are those shorts not too short, that dress not a little too revealing? 

the uncomfortable swallows when the man on the subway looked you over like you were an object—  
your confusion: why is he staring at me? what did I do wrong? 

the growing uneasiness you feel when you walk home alone in the once beautiful dusk—  
feeling too old to be with the safety of a parent, too young to feel safe
too inexperienced to realize that you will never truly feel safe

the slow realization comes that these are not unusual occurrences, that there are larger reasons for why these worries haunt you like the shadows of passersby on your street at night  

the previously unspoken, hushed words of rape and sexual assault begin to show up everywhere.
you quickly learn how to keep yourself “safe”- your once silent community now fears for your protection, they replace the shelter you had with lessons

by the age of twelve, you have already learned much about how to “protect” yourself from men that could do you wrong.

how you have learned to exchange skirts for long shorts, spaghetti straps for sleeves, even in the heat of summer— 
in case your exposed legs or bare shoulders tempt someone dangerous.

how you have learned how to hold your keys between your knuckles and to always carry pepper spray—  
in case someone decides that you would be an easy victim.

how you have learned to always walk with your head down and eyes averted at night— 
in case someone needs to see that you’renotaskingforit even though you never were and never will. 

but with all of these lessons and habits, although the people behind them only wish well, 
you’re still unsatisfied with what you have learned. 

still you wonder at the statistics you read online one day
they are unwanted lights shining on the dark alleys that you have always avoided

you realize that with all of your lessons,
you’ve still never learned why even while you follow these guidelines to “stay safe”,
you have a ⅓ chance of being sexually assaulted in your lifetime

you realize that with all of your lessons, 
you’ve still never learned why while your freedoms are limited for the sake of “safety”,
still less than 1% of rapists are ever convicted of a crime. 
you realize that with all of your lessons,

you’ve still never learned why clothing matters, because if it did then there wouldn’t be
a sexual assault happening every 73 seconds

you learn that these issues are real, and others are aware of it, but that it’s too dangerous for you or anyone to do anything, that being aware and angry in private about it is enough.

you learn that those dark alleys will still be dangerous for the rest of your life, because no matter how many flashlights are shone they always die out.

when you were younger you hoped for toys and stuffed animals for your birthdays. 
now, with every double digit birthday, you hope for real protection.