The title of this might be a little bit of a mischaracterization, since I actually had many feminist mentors in my life from an early age, even if I (or they) didn’t realize it at the time. The teacher in this story may not consider herself a feminist, for all I know, but this situation had a big impact on my life.
In 5th grade, our day was split into two halves; before lunch was with one teacher and after lunch was with another. In the second half of my day I shared a table with one other girl and two boys. One of the boys, C, had a leetle problem with respecting women. I don’t remember how long it went on, but for quite some time he sexually harassed me and the other girl who shared our table. He would grab our butts or grab his crotch. He would make lewd remarks. He was talking about sex all the time and offered a million dollars to have sex with us (why, yes, this was when Indecent Proposal came out). Because I didn’t like or trust the teacher who was in charge of my afternoon class, the other girl and I went to our morning teacher to tell her what was happening.
To be honest, I don’t recall the conversation with Mrs. W at all. I remember feeling very nervous and uncomfortable in thinking about how we were going to describe this student’s behavior. I don’t remember my teacher’s reaction, I don’t even remember what the consequences were for this kid, if any. But I do remember a few days later when I was in Mrs. W’s classroom early before school and the sexual harasser came in to apologize for what he had been doing, presumably this was part of his punishment. “It’s OK,” I replied, wanting the whole embarrassing saga to just be over with. Mrs. W looked at me seriously, with the sexual harasser still standing there. “No, Luci, it’s not OK,” she said. Part of me sank further into embarrassment. I really did not want to have to confront this boy any more about what he had been doing. But that statement also empowered me. I looked at the sexual harasser and repeated what Mrs. W had said, “No. It’s not OK. I accept your apology, but please leave me alone.”
Mrs. W’s intervention gave me control over the situation that I wasn’t sure I had. Sure, I had taken my concern to a teacher instead of dealing with the problem, but I wasn’t sure that anything would change. But after that I knew that if this kid was going to bother me at all, I had it within me to say, “No. this isn’t OK.” That’s a powerful feeling for a 10-year-old girl, and it was strength that stuck with me as I entered middle school and developed large breasts that boys saw as an invitation to ogle or touch. I had the power to tell them to stop it. I didn’t need to giggle or flirt and hide my embarrassment. It was strength that I carried as an adult when I was able to tell a date that no, I did not want to go home with him “just to hang out” because I knew he was going to pressure me for sex. And it’s strength that I hold when a man on the street tells me, “Come on beautiful, show that pretty smile,” and I think no, I will not smile for you and it’s not OK.
I have been fortunate in my life that Mrs. W was not the only person that gave me the power and strength to say no, but there are certain unforgettable situations that really drove it home. Teaching moments, if you will, and I am grateful for every one of them.