Upsetting to have to write this, in 2018, but here goes.
The year was 1970; I was in sixth grade at a local public school. Sixth grade was the last grade before graduating and going to a big, scary Junior High. In sixth grade, you were supposed to be at the top of the heap and beyond teasing and bullying, because there were no older kids. A false sense of security set in, I suppose.
Every morning, I walked half a block straight up a hill to stand at a busstop with ten or fifteen other kids. This was way before helicopter parenting days; our parents made sure we ate breakfast, were carrying lunch in a brown paper sack or lunchbox, or carrying lunch money. Books, homework; boots, gloves, hat, scarf in winter. Check. Out the door and on our own.
Some winters there was a lot of snow. All winters there was some snow. The township plowed it early in the morning so that unless it was really severe, snow never meant missing school. Still, we would glue ourselves to the radio, listening for our call number. “Schools 003, 005, are closed.” We were 301, I think. Rarely closed unless there were five inches or more of snow overnight and it hadn’t been plowed yet.
Every morning, we got to the bus stop five or ten or fifteen minutes ahead of the bus. Because the bus could be early, and if you missed the bus, you really didn’t want to deal with Mom having to drive you to school. Back then, most Moms in my neighborhood were home and could actually do that.
So we arrived 15 minutes early, and stood in the snow waiting on the big yellow school bus. Sometimes we had snowball fights. Those were mostly good natured, but there was one boy named Jerry Paris who liked to put a rock in the middle of his snowball, or make ice balls, which were much harder. He’d target girls or kids smaller than him. It wasn’t fun and it wasn’t safe.
I had the soul of a rescuer, even at that age. For some reason, I thought it was my responsibility and calling to protect the weaker. More than that, I couldn’t stand the smug satisfaction on his face of getting away with it, being top dog, knowing no one would challenge him.
I stooped, picked up some snow, packed it real tight, took aim. From twenty yards, I hit Jerry Paris right in the back with a snowball. A general gasp went up. Everyone else’s tactic had been to submit, ignore, avoid retaliation. None of them threw snowballs at Jerry. I heard “you’re gonna get it”, and realized no one was going to cover my back, lie for me, or neglect to tell him who did it.
I don’t remember what happened after that. There was a moment’s satisfaction of having “got” the bully. There was a wild flight of fantasy thinking he would mend his ways. Didn’t all those kids’ books say that if you stand up to a bully, he’ll stop doing it? Yeah, sure. That happens.
After that, the dread set in. What’s he going to do to me. It will be something. I think in that moment Jerry laughed it off, but as I write that, the memory of watching him load up a snowball and speed it back my way surfaces. I remember the fear, not the impact.
The year is still 1970. This standing up for the downtrodden hasn’t worked out the way I thought, but I’ve more or less chalked it up to experience and moved on. I don’t know if I threw more snowballs at Jerry Paris or not. I remember feeling like the lone outrider on a trail no one else even saw.
Except for my friend Nancy, who also defied every norm she could spot. We would meet up on the playground twice a day at recess. She was a year behind me, cute in a baby butch way, and infinitely fun.
I knew I was attracted to girls by then, but she and I had not discussed it. She went on many years later to be a picture on the front page of the NYTimes for one of the first gay marriages.
Back to 1970. Rows of desks with laminated wood tops and enamel chairs. Bright lights, boring subjects. New books. We were the spoiled ones of suburbia with pretty good curriculum and 30 in a class. Mostly well-behaved.
The bell rings recess. We are allowed outside in the snow. I push back my chair, stow my book in the metal shelf under my desktop, stand up, put on coat and knit cap and gloves, make my way to the door. Not ten yards from the door, as I’m walking fast past a jungle gym and scanning the snow covered field for my friend Nancy, I hear a noise behind me of several boys running and joking. “There she is, get her!” They push me from behind, hold me face down in the snow. One on each arm, as I struggle to raise my head and torso and get up. I can’t get up, they’re too strong and too many. One opens my coat in front, pulls my sweater out, and shoves cold snow down the front of my shirt. I scream. There’s the cold, and there’s having a boy shove his hand down my shirt. Both bad.
They laugh. They get up and leave before the teacher on playground duty says anything at all. Perhaps she’d blown a whistle at them, I don’t know. I get up. I find the playground monitor teacher, an older woman with platinum coiffed hair and a plaid coat. Probably the same woman who threatened to send me home earlier that year for wearing pants in six inches of snow. Understand, that in this shoving down in the snow, I was wearing a skirt.
I tell the playground teacher what happened. I am looking forward to her rounding up the boys and scolding them and sending them inside. I expect to be told that she’ll make sure it never happens again.
I’m wrong. She says, “well, boys will be boys. Horseplay. It’s not a big deal. Don’t play with them if you don’t want to get hurt.”
They came up behind me. I was just outside the door. I didn’t walk past them or provoke them; I have no idea why they chose me. Maybe for being the best student in the class?
Maybe just for being.
I don’t remember who those boys were. It was not Jerry Paris. I will never know why they picked me. It was random, it was an attack, and when I reported it, I was told immediately to disregard my own feelings and to reframe it as anything but an assault. In fact, I was blamed for being in the way of it. Told it was the price of recess, and I could stay inside if I wanted.
That is what I have to say to all the men who want to dismiss attempted rape as “mere horseplay.” First of all, no it fucking isn’t. And second, you don’t know what can of worms you’re opening with that. Horseplay isn’t as harmless as you think; it’s another word that’s been weaponized to cover up for all manner of assault and injury.