Sunday, August 22, 2010

Intimidation

When I was in middle school, I had a gym teach who was a complete and total lech. Picture the early 1980s, the polyester shorts that were too tight and too short. I'd describe him more fully, but I think he still lives in my hometown and I'm not quite ready to demonize the guy should someone who reads this "recognize" him. He doesn't teach anymore, however, and since he didn't do anything criminal, I'll have to hope 12- and 13-year-old girls everywhere are safe.

One day after class, I had headed toward the locker room to change. He called me back to where he stood at the far side of the gym. I jogged back over and asked what he wanted. He smiled his slimy smile and said, "Nothing. I just like the way you look from behind and wanted to watch you walk away again." Twelve. I was twelve. years. old.

He never said anything like that to me again, but I can still recall the way he looked at me, and it turns my stomach. And did I tell anyone about this? Not a word--not a friend, not a teacher, not a parent.

I thought of him again recently when I was at my brother's bookstore in Virginia. I had some editing work to do and had brought my laptop so I could hang out in one of the store's comfy chairs and still feel like I was visiting with family. About fifteen minutes into my work, an old man came and sat across from me. I didn't even look up. I was there to work, not be friendly, and I wasn't interested in conversation. Ten minutes later, I realized the guy wasn't interested in conversation anyway--he was too busy . . . how do I put this delicately . . . entertaining himself. My first thought was, "No way. No freaking way is he sitting across from me doing that." My second thought was, "Bobbie, give the guy the benefit of the doubt. He's 70 if he's a day, and he probably just has an itch." An itch that lasted twenty minutes. My stomach was in knots. I felt frozen in place. Do I tell him to go see a doctor? Do I get up and walk away? Do I throw something heavy at him and tell him to leave the store before I call the police? I did none of those things. Instead, I leaned my head on hand, my elbow resting on the arm of the chair, and tried to focus on my work. Right about then (finally) a young man came and sat in the seat next to me. The old man stopped. The kid stayed for about ten minutes then left. The old man started.

I closed my laptop and got up to leave. The old man said, sounding as chipper and as harmless as can be, "You must be studying very hard. Perhaps working on a paper for college?" I'm 41 and am happy to admit it. I don't look 41 (under most lighting conditions), but I don't look like a college student either. But this guy was old enough that I suppose I could have been mistaken as being quite a bit younger than I am. I said, "No. Just working, and my laptop batter is dying." He directed me to where I could find an outlet, and I left.

First, however, I told my sister--the manager--about what was happening, still thinking I was imagining it all or that I was wrong and he really was just scratching. She sighed and said, "I was afraid of that." No one had ever come to her directly about this guy, but she'd had a bad feeling about him.

I headed off to the balcony, and the old guy followed me up about ten minutes later. I left, not even being nice about it this time, but STILL not saying anything to him directly.

For the rest of the afternoon, I kept an eye on him and realized he was wandering from one seat in the store to another, always sitting near younger women. So the fact that he thought I was in college meant, I realized, he'd targeted me. He didn't sit near anyone older than their early 20s. But with a male employee hovering nearby, the guy didn't start again.

My brother kicked him out. He hasn't been back and won't be back, and if he does return, the police have been notified and he'll be arrested on the spot.

I'm angry about what this man was doing--not because I'm a prude or because I'm even offended. I'm angry because what he was doing amounted to little more than intimidation, and I let him intimidate me! I'm not a 12-year-old girl anymore. I'm a 41-year-old mother of four who would have gone ballistic on this man if he'd done anything like that in front of my daughter or my nieces or even a perfect stranger. But I let him do it in front of me. I wasn't doubting him when I hesitated to say anything. I was doubting myself.

We teach our kids all the time about standing up for themselves, about how to tell the bad guys from the good guys, about how to trust their instincts and that little voice in their heads. And then we--or I--forget to lead by example. When I was twelve, I had an excuse. Now? Not at all.

Intimidation is a powerful tool. But so is my voice. And I should have used it. Next time I will.

4 comments:

Mendy said...

This reminds me of my SIL's recent post about a scumball that was targeting her at a grocery store. Basically she said what you've said here - we are too polite to total strangers. I realize there are always going to be slimeballs. What infuriates me is the targeting and profiling. The ability to keep their nastiness reserved for a select audience and counting on us to be quiet or afraid or not directly confront them.

Wouldn't it have been great to just lean over and say, "Are you doing what I think you're doing? Because that makes me want to hurl and now I'm going to go tell the manager, who happens to be my brother."

I've been frozen up in many situations, so I'm not faulting you at all. I have had a few encounters where I've been more direct with "iffy" people and yeah, I looked like a jerk, but I felt more in control of the situation.

I should note here that when I was on FB, I did that 25 random things post and one of my random things is this:
I attract creepy old men.

I'm sorry that we have that in common.

Bobbie said...

I SO wish I'd had the courage to lean over and say any number of things to the guy. And looking like a jerk is one reason I didn't. I kept thinking, "What if I'm wrong?" I ready your SIL's post and now I'm reading "The Gift of Fear."

And what IS it with us attracting creepy old men? I've attracted them since high school if not sooner. There was this one MINISTER, for crying out loud, that used to come into my parents' store (before my brother took over ownership) and ask if I'd like any "private counseling." I always politely declined (which is probably why I keep attracting them). He asked me what I liked for lunch, and then he brought me Chinese takeout one afternoon.

The next time he came in, my mother quickly ushered him out, lectured him about, in essence, stalking me, and made it clear he wasn't welcome in the store again. She only told me about that months later when I commented on not having seen him recently. I was in my early 20s and was clueless.

I'm done, as your SIL put it, with playing the victim. I'm getting way too old for this.

Val said...

I had some kid grab my crotch once when I was walking home from high school. Just reached over and gave me a squeeze as he walked by. I didn't know him. I had no idea how to respond and I never told anyone. But I sure hated walking home alone from school after that. How do we teach our children to deal with those things?

Bobbie said...

Good question, Val, and I think it must depend on the child's personality. In junior high, I put up with more than I did in high school, and then college came around and I forgot myself again.

I think if we let our kids know it's okay to get angry and to *own* their own bodies and to defend their bodies, it's a start. Leading by example helps, too. You're a strong woman, and I can't imagine Zoe not seeing that clearly.

It's scary, though, to think of all the things I *should* have told my parents and didn't. I didn't feel like I was hiding anything; I just didn't think it was something worth telling--like the gym teacher. Can you imagine how you'd react to someone treating your daughter like that guy treated you? I just hope my kids know I have their back . . . and that I won't consider any response too extreme (short of serious criminal acts, of course) when it comes to them protecting themselves from intimidation and assault.