Author’s Note: This essay won a national gold medal from Scholastic Art & Writing and was unpublished prior to my submission. It won me a scholarship opportunity as well as the attention from my entire zipcode and school district. I did not write this for vengeance, otherwise trust me… it would be much harsher. I wrote this for me, for the other girls who were targeted, and for all the people who have been through something similar. I’m not saying I have it the worst, but I have had a taste and my heart goes out to victims of similar crimes and more disgusting ones. There will be a follow up as to what this essay spurred in my community. People only care when you pose a great enough threat, so if I leave you with anything before reading this essay, it’s “fortuna fortibus favet.”
I was fourteen when I learned about Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” for the first time. I was too young to grasp the concept as a whole, but I knew that it excited something inside of me. Something deeper and quieter, like a drum that throbbed in the folds of my heartbeat.
What was more exciting was the man teaching me. Steven was far more alluring than an ancient man droning on about shadows. His shoulder blades broke up the projector light and stretched the colors around him, casting his own shadow on the board in front of us. Strands of his messy hair stood out like hairline fractures on an X-ray. I was intoxicated by the young teacher in front of me. I had no idea that as he was shedding me of these metaphorical chains of ignorance, he was placing his own around my neck.
For years, I was taught to fear my peers. I was taught to pull my skirt down at the first sight of a fellow fourteen year old, wait until marriage to engage in any sort of physical activity, and told stories about the horrors of fraternity parties and red solo cup events. No one ever told me to fear the hands that fed me this information.
Authority has always been a tricky topic in my life. I tend to level the playing field in my relationships. I make teachers my friends, administration my acquaintances, my bosses my gal pals and girlfriends. I don’t have this issue with authority because I’m viciously rebellious or because I have an overwhelming amount of teen angst. I do it because it’s the only way I’ve learned how to survive. If they are my friend, it won’t hurt as bad when they ruin me. I will be losing a friend, not being abused.
I stopped wearing skirts after the school counselor used to touch my knees in hidden offices when I was thirteen. He would come to my science class and take me into his office, locking the door behind him and pointing out how to use a planner. He’d hold my hand when he talked, his breath taking up so much room between us that I stifled mine. His office was an old storage closet with a desk, a filing cabinet, a lamp, and two chairs all wedged inside. There was no way of sitting in which you were not close to him, and he never let me sit in the chair with the door closest to me. I’d sit in the corner, and he would pull his chair up so close that his knees would press against mine. His hands would gradually find their way to my legs where he’d rest them lightly.
I remember watching his fingers lay gently on my thighs. I remember wanting to throw up. I also remember thinking that would be disrespectful.
Seeing as though I was a straight-A student, a club level athlete, and I won writing competitions at the age of twelve, I was not the student he needed to meet with. And yet, I was there every week.
The counselor used to give me massages and tuck his fingers underneath my school uniform collar, kneading my neck like a stress toy. He would ask me for hugs and pull me up into his chest so that his face rested in my neck. I used to try and hide from him in the hallways, but he’d spot me out from a crowd and motion me over, grabbing my hands and caressing them in his. I remember his hands were dry. Cracked on the knuckles, bandaids on some. They felt like sandpaper against my virgin skin that he found some sort of pleasure in feeling. I always tried to pull away, but he was the adult. He was the teacher. He was the protector. I could never disobey.
I knew what he was doing was wrong, but no teacher ever stopped him. I told many, but nothing ever happened. My parents thought I was being overdramatic. The administration had to deal with which faculty members were sleeping with each other. No one had time to deal with my petty pleas for help. I think that’s when I learned that no one was ever going to help me when I needed it, not even the men who promised to do just that. I didn’t like any of them.
When I entered high school, I was unaware of my resting perceptions of men. Trauma has a funny way of hiding itself until you’re stable enough to look back and feel its bite. I met Steven on my first day of freshman year and felt this visceral relief wash over me. I didn’t know what it meant at the time. I just knew that he was not like the school counselor. He wasn’t going to touch me. He wasn’t going to tell me he liked that I seemed older. He wasn’t going to hurt me.
That was the fun part for him. It was never about sex. It was never about having budding young girls fall to their knees, eyes resting on his belt buckle. It was about control.
I quickly developed a close relationship with Steven, as I was one of the few kids that participated in class and who could write an essay in twenty minutes. I was smart enough to pick up his adult wit, intuitive enough to know that he was going through just as much in life as we were, and light-hearted enough to take his teasing comments with a grain of salt. I could bite back, too. All men like that.
I began to sit in his room after school just to talk with a few other girls who also admired him. I quickly was sucked into the speech and debate team, the group that these girls were apart of. Not only would I take a class with him next semester, but I spent every Saturday with him and the girls who seemed to be the only people on the planet who understood me. We all wore the invisible necklaces that he hung on our necks during that first Plato lesson. We all had the gleam in our eye that held Steven in the brightest light we could imagine. We were all brainwashed.
Steven was this catharsis we all sought for some reason or another. Some had daddy issues, some were raped, some were depressed, and some just needed a reminder that not all men were dull and trashy. I adored Steven because he saw me as what I was. My early high school years came with an onslaught of health issues. I was diagnosed with a chronic pain condition before I could say “homecoming,” and was put on Zoloft before I could say “I’ve got the mean reds!” Every day, I showed up to school medicated, depressed, and in so much head pain, I used to dig my nails into my wrists to take my mind off of it. My migraines came every day, and I learned to love Excedrin and Midrin more than any man. Steven treated me as an equal. He looked me in the eye when I spoke, pushed me in my studies, and never let me feel sorry for myself. Everyone else at the time treated me as though I were a ticking time bomb with “1:34,” blinking on my forehead.
My debate team spent hours a day together and created a bond that was centered around Steven. It was a connection created by hours of argument revision, poetry recitations, and hotel antics that took place in our club meets. The debate team was the first, and the only, time I have ever felt any sense of community. Being around the girls and Steven’s open ears made living through my teen years, which were riddled with health issues, more than bearable. Steven made life feel worth it.
Even when the first allegations arose, I didn’t even bat an eye. None of us did. After all, it was Steven. Steven would sooner rob a bank than hurt us.
I saw no red flags because Steven’s mere existence is a red flag. His gravitation towards a specific type of young girl and his ability to pull them closer to him, donning the same chains around their necks, is astonishing. From loathing the administration of our school just as much as we did, slipping curse words into his rants, and wanting to know more about our personal lives, Steven managed to slither into our lives and root himself inside of us, the closest he could get without laying a finger down. He got off on knowing what we were going through. There were no boundaries with Steven. No off the table questions or topics. He wanted to know as much as possible, even if that meant sharing specific details about our issues. He wanted to hold our stories like a librarian guarding a secret shelf. He told us he was “sharing the burden”, but really he was hoarding our trust so that we would defend him in a time of need.
For the three years that I knew Steven, he was my dream man. I wasn’t in love with him, or even lustful. He just represented everything I ever wanted in someone. Patient, witty, intelligent, and verbose. Moreso, his presence didn’t hurt me. I didn’t feel gross after leaving his office like I did when I left the school counselor’s room. I never felt unsafe or uneasy around him.
I was alone with him four times, memories I have raked over more times than I’d care to admit, trying to find a sign that I missed. I’ve come up dry every single time because his actions are so ingrained in my soul as “normal” and “safe” that I can’t even tell you that anything he said or did was out of character.
I talked to Steven the day before he was fired, telling him that I’d be transferring schools the next year because my health was deteriorating. I remember him looking at me, the way he always did, with the same patience and kindness I always adored, and telling me he’d miss me.
I had never felt that before. The feeling of having that sort of impact on someone else’s life enough to be missed. Thought of, sure. But missed? That was something else. That was a connection that wasn’t parental or grounded in blood. It was a created connection. One that was kindled with hundreds of memories bound together like hairs until a rope was formed.
I would miss him, too. I was abandoning the only friends I had ever known, one of the few men I have ever trusted, and the only sense of self-confidence I had discovered. I was leaving behind the therapy sessions I used to have with him, the comedy shows he would play in his classroom during off periods, and the snacks he would give me to keep my blood sugar stable. Even the thought seemed to break something inside of me.
The next day, something was off. The entire chemistry of the school seemed horribly acidic and dark. No kids looked at me in the hallways. Steven was nowhere to be found. We had a school meeting about his absence. An email was sent out saying that he was immediately terminated after allegations of an inappropriate relationship with a student arose. And he was gone.
No one believed it. No one who knew him, at least. For a year, I defended Steven’s name until my tongue got tired of reciting the same thesis statement with three supporting arguments. I spoke to every parent that asked, every student that ridiculed me, and every teacher that inquired. I knew my truth. My truth was Steven’s truth, and if he pleaded innocent, then that is the Truth.
Eight months later, I learned that this was not the only time. I saw messages of his to other girls. I saw proclamations of love, his desire to abandon his wife and suburban life, requests to go out drinking with underage girls, and comments on his students’ attire. I heard stories of his drunken slurs of passion and his business scheme that always seemed to pick young girls as his interns. I saw the secret messaging app. I saw it all.
There’s no way to sugarcoat the fact that I began spiraling. I was not faced with feelings of fear or hatred. Not yet, at least. Rather, one thought kept reappearing in my mind.
Why not me?
I was so confused about this feeling of wanting to be with him. I saw inappropriate conversations. I knew what he wanted, and yet there was still a desire to be the girl he preyed upon. It was almost an honor to be picked by Steven like we were allowed to finally pay him back for the years of guidance he had given us. I wanted to be those girls.
I messaged him the next day, nonchalantly sending a Facebook message about a book he had given me. When he responded, I started crying. I left the classroom where I was texting him under the lab table, and stuck two fingers down my throat in school the bathroom, gagging until my fingernails pressed into the back of my throat. I needed to expel these thoughts of wanting to be his pawn. Rip him out of the fabric of my identity. That was not easy because his presence was dye-like and seamless. I vowed to bleach every fiber I could.
I spat up a child’s size amount of bile and leaned against the steel door. I wanted to be numb. I didn’t want him to respond in the same tonality and cadence that had brought me so much comfort for years. I wanted him to be sleazy and upfront, if that’s who he truly was. I wanted him to tell me everything he had ever thought about me and the rest of the girls. I just wanted to know. If I knew, then I could move on.
He knew I was trying to coax him, and we virtually danced around each other with rhetorical questions and discussions about reading I was doing in my English class. I told him we were discussing free will and its power, if any, over biological impulses. He told me that he thought people who couldn’t control those impulses were ‘trash humans’. I agreed.
He’d reply almost immediately after I did, always trying to get me to say more. I spent my free period in my car, replying to him and feeling my gut wrench every time he said something that pushed me to say more. He knew what I was doing. He also knew that he had me, and the rest of his girls, wrapped around his finger tighter than his wedding ring.
I never got much else out of him. I stopped messaging him for my own sake and safety, and just spent the rest of the year piecing together this massive jigsaw puzzle. One comment here, one message there, a touch in that room, a compliment in the hotel lobby. I finally felt the chain that had been wrapped around my neck for years. It had dug into my collarbone and pushed so hard, my skin peeled back, bloody and dripping. I finally saw what he had done.
His chains were just a service charge to be around him. Be enlightened, be complimented, be loved, and just accept his chains as jewelry.
Months later, an old staff member walked up to me at a restaurant that I frequent downtown. I knew his angle from the slanted shoulders and the inability to meet my eyes. He said he was sorry. I knew he was being honest, and yet I still felt my gut churn. Was he grooming me too? The fear that had once been a physical tingling on bare knees had been replaced with an earth-shattering discomfort around a kind acquaintance who simply wanted to know how I was doing. No one could be trusted.
I told him I was going to be okay. I was going to be okay on my own terms, though, and if that meant hating every guy who told me he loved philosophy for a bit, then so be it. Trauma never goes away, but its grip fades with every ounce of power you take from it.
Looking back, I think I’d rather be groped in hallways then ever experience a ‘Steven’ in my life again. I’d rather be hugged by old men and have my knees at their palms any time they’d like than ever sit in a room with a man whose only desire is to indoctrinate me until I am fuckable.
It would be easy to end my story with an “I hate men! Men are trash!” type of manifesto with a lackluster call to action. That is not what this is about for me. This is not about “getting back” at men who have wronged me or approaching every new man with a can of pepper spray in my hand. This is not the school counselor’s story. This is not Steven’s story. This is my story, and I’ll be damned if I end up as a mere display of an abuser’s feeble attempts to make dolls out of young girls.
My life is in my hands, and it always will be. It is up to me how to process and utilize what I have been through, and I am choosing to be hopeful. I am choosing to go about my future endeavors, knowing that there are good men out there. I’ll find them. They will get stories of their own. I am no longer Steven’s pawn. I am the queen. This is my game, and he is no longer a part of it.
Picture: Dior exhibit, Denver Art Museum 2019