Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Educator: Kasumi Parker
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
I’ll start by saying I was sixteen. And that sometimes I get nightmares. And that afterward, I started eating an obscene number of oranges. And four months after that, I stopped. That it took me a long time to admit it to myself. And that I didn’t know what to call it.
I still don’t really know.
I have always shied away from labels. My English teachers have remarked on my ability to imply, to expand and convolute, all the while avoiding anything too sharp and pointed and exact. As if I wished you would know someone’s failing marriage from the bouquet of flowers sitting on a desk. Or a mother’s death from the cold, black edge of a bobsled. Or a case of sexual assault from the fact that his favorite color was blue and that I wasn’t wearing blue, I wasn’t. He didn’t understand. It was an accident. It’s alright. Look, I’m fine! I wasn’t.
I had met his family before. Traveling halfway across the world to teach as a part of a community service organization working to spread STEM education. He was the school advisor for this club and I had worked closely with him to plan fundraisers and coordinate the lessons and competitions on the trip. We drove across the only paved road in the entire country to a remote town, accompanied by his brother, sister-in-law, and niece, stopping on the way to meet his other siblings and parents. We taught at a school where everyone seemed to have an opossum as a pet, begged to hear the latest Justin Beiber song, and shouted when they propelled a paper fish across a water basin. At a school where teenage girls would bring their babies and rainbow-colored cots to class, lying their children in the back and stepping out every two hours to breastfeed. There, rape was common. Most, the principal said, quit school because they were ridiculed, often by their perpetrators. They just didn’t know better, the principal said. They didn’t know better.
One afternoon, as everyone had just been dismissed to lunch, in the far corner of the courtyard I saw one of my students reaching down a girl’s shirt. She, smiling and laughing, swatted his hand away, head darting around looking across the yard. He kept moving down, until she was shrinking away, all the while still laughing uncomfortably. I stormed over, feeling somewhat superior, even though they were older than me. I was naive, thinking that I could change their perceptions just because I came from another country and because knowing every step of photosynthesis gave me a position in the front of the classroom. Because I sat them down and talked about consent, willing the girl to speak up and the boy to listen. And after a short lecture, standing in front of the door, I smiled at them, saying, “Everyone deserves that level of respect, the respect for other people but also the respect for yourself.” “I know you are good,” I added, before telling them to pick up scraps of paper on the ground and throw them into the chalk circle I had drawn in the ground as a made-up trash can. Because it was simple like that.
I had forgotten about that incident for a while until I started writing this. But I remember vividly that when I returned, my appreciation for my perpetrator intensified. Because he dedicated his life to give back to his community. Because he knew that I trusted him and that I cared for his family, his people, and him. And that I was naive.
Before the night it happened, he had started hugging me and kissing me on the cheek, which I played off as a “cultural difference”. I forced myself to smile, even telling myself, “We’re this close because I’ve worked for so long in this organization. Because he appreciates my work ethic and my passion and initiative.” He wanted to share food utensils, offering me halal cart chicken over rice, which I politely declined, finding an excuse to leave the room after he kept pushing his metal spoon in my hands. I never said no. Instead, I told myself that I wanted to be close to him and help his people. I told myself that he didn’t mean anything more.
On a Tuesday, he told me we were going to walk to a school near mine. We didn’t go to the school. Instead, circling around an empty street next to a park at 11:00 am when most people were at work and the dog walkers already finished walking, He said things that I didn’t really understand. Or didn’t want to understand. Special relationship, he had said. Your boyfriend doesn’t have to know. Just between us. What I remember most clearly was his question: What do you think? What did I think? It was a cold day and my fingers were curled inside my pockets. I glanced around at the empty streets, the sun bright on a clear sky. It couldn’t have been. Because it didn’t happen in schools like mine or to people like me. I surely knew better. Should I take this as a compliment? Was it my long legs in ripped skinny jeans or my face? Did he like my face? I was terrified that he would drag me into his car and drive away. He had parked near here. And he wasn’t a bad person. He couldn’t have been. He was so kind and good. I smiled. You’re like a school parent to me, I said. I really appreciate that you trust me and that we’ve gotten closer. I trust you. I trust you. I never explicitly denied him, only saying parent a few more times. Because I thought he would understand. Because I thought pushing the responsibility away from me would remind him that he was more than three and a half times my age. Because I didn’t want him to hate me. And for what? Because I had biology next period and because tomorrow I’d see him again and the day after that. Because he had the courtesy to ask me what I thought. Because I didn’t know what else to do.
The day it happened, I let myself get into his car because I was too lazy to get up another hour earlier and take two trains and a bus to a competition. Because he volunteered as a chaperone. And because I wanted to trust him and I still did. Because even though I saw danger signs when we had to stop by my school at 7 pm — just the two of us, alone — he said he needed to pick up some bagels and I wanted to return some tools. Because there was a security guard on the ground floor. Because I wanted to forget my suspicions and that by trusting, I could show myself that I was wrong for thinking he meant anything more.
It was not rape. But I am tired of assuming that people will judge me and that they will think to themselves that “it was not that bad”. It took me three months to tell my boyfriend. Who holds me whenever I squeeze his left hand. Who repeatedly tells me that it wasn’t my fault. Who cries when I am too tired to.
It’s been ten months. I am seventeen and still get nightmares. I don’t eat oranges. And still, I find myself giving him excuses. He doesn’t even know. About how I feel, what I think, or if he was even wrong in the first place. I didn’t want him to. But I’m writing this now, not because I’m not afraid. Because I don’t want to be.