I just need to say something. I need to rip the band aid right off because it is seriously weighing on my heart. I have been caught in a whirlwind of ruminating thoughts since Friday. I finally thought I had begun handling everything that was already coming up because of my stress, but then Friday happened. When I was walking into the middle school that I work in I was cat called by an older guy on a bicycle. I threw out my normal response to those types of instances which is a swift “fuck you, you idiot” and I kept it pushing. This happens semi-regularly in the town that I work in, but I could have never anticipated what would happen just an hour and a half later.
I was wearing one of my favorite dresses. It has a swoop in the back that shows off my tattoos perfectly and completely covers my chest (which can sometimes be necessary) and is work appropriate as it goes all the way down to my knees. I am describing this because I am genuinely shocked at what happened when I walked into the teachers’ room. I went in to quickly fill my water before meeting with my supervisor. I walk in and the usual people are in there, mostly janitors, but only a few people all together about 4, two men and two women. One of the male janitors has always made me feel a bit uncomfortable ever since he told me he could “just tell I was Cuban” while he slowly looked my body up and down. He has given me the creeps ever since then and whenever I go in there I know he is looking at me. On Friday however he took it beyond just looking. As I leaned down to fill my cup he howled like a wolf howls at the moon. I am not saying he softly made a noise, but legitimately howled, very loudly the entire length of time that I was leaning down to fill my cup.
As it was happening I was thinking what the fuck is going on. A part of me hoped I had just walked in on a very weird conversation, but it was clear that wasn’t the case when everyone else just silenced. As I walked off to the bathroom that is situated in the teachers’ room I heard him mutter something about beauty. As soon as I closed the restroom door my body involuntarily shook as if I could shake the crude, disgusting, and violating experience clean off me. I told myself that because I am already having issues of resistance with the staff at the school I would just brush this off. I adjusted myself and quickly exited the teachers’ room without making eye contact with him. I just wanted to continue with my day.
About 30 minutes later I was waiting for a student who a teacher described as in crisis. She was taking abnormally long so I went out into the hall and started to look around for her. It was then that the same janitor approached me. I was up against a wall and he asked me if I was married. He asked me in Spanish so a huge part of me was hoping he was asking if I was tired as it kind of sounded like cansada not casada and I mean why the fuck would he be asking me that?! I’m sure he could tell I was confused by the question as he asked it a few more times and then came closer as he said it slower in broken English. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand him, but rather, a confirmation that the howling from earlier was most definitely meant for me. I eventually answered because he would not stop asking and said no. He asked me why not and I muttered I don’t know. Then he came even closer and asked me how old I was. I was literally backed against a wall and he just kept asking nonstop, coming closer with each ask, and was making attempts to guess my age. As I finally answered he backed away with a gasp, shocked at how young I am, saying as much as he shook his head walking away.
I tried to laugh it off, but I had not been able to shake that feeling and after I handled the situation with the student I was able to return to supervision. Near the end I just kind of blurted out what had happened because it wasn’t sitting well with me, and if I was being honest, it was really bothering me and forefront in my mind. I wanted to just talk it out and hopefully she would be able to talk me down from my thought that I was just sexually harassed in my work place. When it came down to it she only validated my feelings and concerns and encouraged me to talk to my program director. My program is not technically a part of the Board of Education so my director is offsite and I am by myself in the school the majority of the time. When I talked to my director about it she appeared just as concerned and stated that she wanted me to document the incident and write an email to the head of HR and CC her. After doing that, later in the day, the HR director and my program director called me.
I was informed that what happened was definitely termed sexual harassment and that they were legally obligated to make a complaint and report about it. I thought that I would at least have some say in the process, but apparently I do not. It is not that I don’t think that a report should be made. On the contrary, I think that it definitely needs to be addressed. The only issue I have is that it is going to make this already resistant and difficult environment even more difficult and hard to work in. I had a lot of conflict about the report, but at the end of the day I really had no choice in the matter.
It got me thinking about what made that instance when I was on the street and told off that passerby any different from what happened with the janitor? I have never experienced sexual harassment in the work place and now fully understand, in a more personal way, the complexity of power dynamics as a contributing factor in how I responded to the situation. I’m not saying that he is at a higher level than me professionally in the school, rather, I am pointing at his social standing in the school. He is a universally liked and respected person while I am new, with little support in the school, and no one knows me on a personal level as I just only started in October of last year.
I am scared about how all of this is going to shake out, but I am also angry. I am angry that when I talked to people about it that I don’t work with I got a lot of “Why did you let it happen/continue?”, “You need to just nip those situations in the bud.”, “Why did you continue the conversation?” – Over all a lot of victim-blaming statements and as a survivor of sexual assault it was a completely jarring experience. I very genuinely froze when all of it was happening. I didn’t really know how to respond, which in my very feminist aligned mind, seems insane and unacceptable. I was not someone who “allowed” these things to happen, but I think what has been so distressing about this experience is realizing that sometimes I really don’t have control over my responses. When it was a no one passing me on the street I was quick to react in a defensive and protective way, but in the context of my job, having someone I see every single day, someone well liked in the school, and with a larger group of support doing that to me I completely froze. Suddenly the same victim-blaming thoughts that plagued me all those years ago were resurfacing and were in full effect. It is a hard realization to manage emotionally and I am not going to lie, it has been a serious struggle for me.
More and more I am realizing just how much my past experiences inform my present self. When you do not really think about it, it is very easy to ignore. However, the deeper I go into this work and continue servicing victims/survivors of trauma, mostly women and girls, I am brought closer to an understanding of my own experience, not only as a woman, but as a therapist with a history of trauma myself. I read a blog recently that talked about the mental health minefield where we are confronted with so many situations in which we have to be the holders of others pain, but in the work place when is it appropriate to bare our truths? Would it be okay to talk about my response to this situation in the context of my past experience? Can I come out as a sexual assault survivor at my job? How will others respond?
These questions are real and legitimate ones that throw me for a loop regularly, but I cannot allow them to control me. I am so thankful to have this space, even if only a few people read this, this blog is a free space for me to express myself as I please. It is a space where I can bare my truth without fear of judgment – and possibly even find points of connection with others. I know I am not alone with these struggles and that realization is greater than any wrongdoing.
I will continue to grow and follow my instincts – never denying the truths of my being and always, and I mean always, integrating those truths into my every day because they are a part of me that is undeniable. I am a complex mosaic of contrasting differences; some pieces shimmering brightly, others dull or rounded, some jagged, but together they are beautiful. I know my worth, I know my strength, and I know I can get through this. It may not be the best environment, but I know I can do this. Even if I did not know what to do in the moment I did not remain silent. I spoke up. I raised my voice – and in a world where I have been consistently silenced about multiple aspects of myself and my experiences, that is nothing to ignore.
My hope is that we will all someday be able to live in a world where the lines that divide us, man, woman, gay, and straight, black, white, Hispanic – all of these lines will fade away and we can live in a world of respect. A world where we are embraced for our truths and never left silenced by the judgments of others.