I was sexually harassed by my male Algebra II honors teacher my first year in boarding school, but I kept it to myself because I was made to feel like I was overreacting. I was just fifteen years of age and although it wasn’t the first time I was sexually harassed, being harassed by a teacher in front of my classmates made it all the more memorable. I feel as though sexual harassment is something which isn’t taken serious enough. We have all of these campaigns to target sexual assault but our dismissal of harassment breeds the environment for assault to happen. We have to acknowledge the root of the problem.
I had his class after lunch and it was in the farthest building from the lunchroom. I had lost track of time talking to my friends during lunch, so I had to run from the lunchroom to my math class. I got to class just in time, but I was sweating because it was warm outside and I was wearing a blazer, as part of my school dress code. I was huffing and puffing. So I asked my teacher, “Can I take off my blazer? because I’m hot”. Without realizing that the word ‘hot’ had two meanings and I had failed to specify the definition I meant. I, of course was referring to my body temperature. I am a serious person and I rarely made jokes in that class, so it wouldn’t have made sense for me to use the other meaning for the word. Jovially, he responded, “ I don’t care how hot you are, I have a wife”. I was shocked and paused for a while, before I responded, “that’s gross, ew.” For a seventy year old man to compare his wife to my fifteen year old-self is beyond disgusting. Words have power, and although he didn’t touch me I felt used and uncomfortable because I hadn’t invited him to look at me in this way.
On the inside I was disgusted and embarrassed. I heard students around me begin to giggle and I expected one of my classmates to say something, but no one would say anything. I knew that they were laughing because they thought I could only get old men to hit on me. I wished that someone would have stepped in said something rather than making me feel horrible about myself. It was as though they didn’t take the incident seriously, yet I recognised that it could’ve just as easily been any one of them.
This wasn’t the first time his behaviour had made me uncomfortable. The entire year, my teacher would glance at me with a smirk and excessively leaned towards me whenever he wanted to help me solve a math problem. He was too comfortable with me, the same way two friends of opposite sex are comfortable with each other. So I always kept a close eye on him and I made sure that we were never in a room alone together. Prior to my harassment, for some reason, I had always brought a friend along with me whenever I went to his extra-help. I noticed that this math teacher seemed to always stare at another girl, who wore short skirts, as she walked the bathroom. He would stop what he was doing to watch her as she walked past him. It was one of his guilty pleasures.
Yes it was “just” an inappropriate comment now, but by making light of it my classmates were making light of something which was damaging for me. It made it seem as though what he had said was okay. Who’s to say how far he would take things if he saw that he could? I felt isolated, as though the people who should understand my situation best didn’t even care. I was both scared for them and hurt that they didn’t support me.
As I said, this wasn’t the first time I had been harassed, but it was something I didn’t expect to happen at my Christian day and boarding school. School and religion should create safe spaces for young girls to grow into themselves, but this experience did the opposite. My image of male teachers and myself have changed forever. We had never heard about an incident like this before but the fact that everyone else took it so lightly let me know that it had happened before, it just hadn’t been reported. It made me realise that sometimes the spaces that are supposed to be the safest aren’t really safe, it’s just that we create the illusion by keeping quiet. It also made me understand myself as a young woman, and the way that men see me. I was confused at first, but luckily I had women in my life who I look up to who have helped me better understand my womanhood.
Sexual harassment is often underestimated, however, as a victim I can assure you I could never wish for anyone to be degraded to the level that I was. Yes, sexual harassment isn’t as severe as sexual assault, yet it has a lasting impact on its victim. How I understand my ‘self-worth’ has been skewed. Youths need to be educated on the matter of sexual harassment and its impacts in order to prevent the severity of its effects, if it does happen to them. It is strength that allows one to overcome a situation like this.
By Jessica Nwachukwu
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