The reasons I lost the will to teach high school are many. Most of them have to do with all the impediments to doing the one thing teachers are known for—teaching. And to be fair, I’d already given my notice of resignation when the “matter” I’m about to describe happened. In fact, it happened because a student wanted to give me a special farewell present.
It was mid-year of my fifth year of teaching. (Half of all teachers quit by their fifth year.) If I’d just held on for one more semester, I would have been vested in the retirement program. But all the money in the world, or all $200 a month I’d receive sometime after 2040, couldn’t justify the lack of administrative and parent support for exorbitant class sizes and teaching to the test, while the extra eyes I’ve attached to the back and sides of my head “manage” classroom behavior, as my brain delivers a lesson I planned at night during my personal time with my family because the hour I’m given during the work day was eaten up by meetings and covering the classes of my ill colleagues due to the shortage of substitutes.
It’s courtesy in most jobs to give two weeks’ notice. I gave three months’ notice. Finding teachers is difficult. And if I left before the end of the semester, I’d leave a new teacher with incomplete grades for over 200 students they’d yet to build a trusting relationship with. There are only a few people I dislike enough to put in that situation.
It was my last week of class. We were in the third period of a four-period day. I was teaching a junior IB English class. IB stands for International Baccalaureate, an honors program that’s often reduced to a place to stick the reasonably well-behaved kids. About 10 minutes of class remained. I’d instructed the class to work in groups on an exam review while I called students back privately to my desk one-by-one to discuss their approximate final grade.
This was often the time when I found myself blown away by rhetoric and creativity that I hadn’t seen all semester. You can’t give my paper a C. I wrote that when my grandmother was in the hospital having her spider veins cauterized and my terrier was getting around on one of those tripod wheels for a broken leg when he got too much speed going on the second floor and rolled down the stairs and broke the other leg.
When I called Greg* to discuss his E (E is the new, more encouraging version of the F) I was prepared for a parade of excuses. To his credit, he didn’t make any. Yet he hovered over my desk like the curly hair hung over his eyes.
I stood up to indicate that our conversation was over. I even said, “You’re acting weird. Is there anything else?”
“Yeah,” he said.
I leaned towards him to hear his question.
Greg threw his arms around me and pressed his body tightly against mine. Almost in the same motion he mashed his open mouth on my neck, trying to reach my lips. I shoved back and yelled, “Get off me, get off me.” Greg pressed his mouth harder into my face and clutched tighter. I felt panicked and trapped because he’d latched onto me. His trim yet muscular body blocked my only way out from behind my desk. I rocked my body to gather momentum as I shoved more forcefully against his chest. All the while I repeated my plea, “Get off me.” This time I pushed hard enough to make him stumble. He laughed lightly. I ordered him to get out.
I sat down at my desk, legs shaking, hands quivering. In any other profession I could have the luxury of recovering from an attack in a private office or at least a cube. I could leave immediately for help. I could sanitize my saliva-sodden neck in a private bathroom. Instead, I had a classroom packed with 32 teenagers that I couldn’t leave unsupervised. That I couldn’t crumble emotionally in front of.
Few students had caught the entire scene, of course. The noisy group work and an ill-placed, load-baring column that created blind spots regardless of how I arranged the desks meant Greg’s actions went mostly unnoticed until I yelled.
Fortunately the students who witnessed the entire attack thought of a solution for me—they went to find a teacher to cover my class. The rest of my class stared and whispered. I could hear various students asking me what just happened and was I okay, but I couldn’t concentrate enough to answer back.
The bell rang as a colleague came to cover my class. The new class coming in already knew some version of the story from Greg’s hall roaming. Calming them down was a challenge when I was having difficulty keeping myself composed.
I waited in class, showing my colleague the assignment, until the late bell rang and the hallways cleared. While trying to find the school’s police officer I saw Greg 12 feet in front of me, lurking in the halls. I ducked into a faculty lounge to avoid him. My anger was boiling because I couldn’t get distance from my attacker. I exited the lounge into a different hallway. There Greg was again. I ran into my department chair’s office a few rooms down and slammed the door.
I was trapped. Greg trapped me behind my desk. He trapped me from using the hallways to find help. He trapped me from being able to come to work, do my job, and go home. And now I was trapped in my department chair’s supply closet of an office.
Just as I was crying to my D.C. about where this guy would get such an idea, the school’s police officer walked in, accompanied by the principal.
“We have more important matters to take care of,” the principal said. My expression must have matched my bewilderment. She patted my arm. “You understand.”
I was beginning to understand too clearly. How could I expect this kid to see how crazy—and illegal—his actions were when the school’s foremost authority figure laughed the “matter” off. It was one of those times that I look back on with an abundance of cutting one-liners. Unfortunately, I was too overwhelmed to think clearly at that moment. The best retort I mustered was, “Let’s just call this ‘matter’ assault.”
The Corporal who left with the principal to take care of those more important issues, like boys lounging in the bathroom instead of sitting in class, told me he’d be back to check on me. In the meantime he was dispatching the school’s newest officer to take my statement.
This new officer took care of business. Within minutes of taking my statement, she had rounded up and isolated the student witnesses. These brave students corroborated my story; ratting out your friend is not a light gesture. But not only had they wanted to come forward — as reality sank in, they felt guilty. They hadn’t jumped to my rescue. I think they were embarrassed and scared that they had remained frozen. I knew exactly how they felt. I’d always considered myself the type of person who’d clock anyone who tried to hurt me. I never entertained the idea that I wouldn’t be able to defend myself.
To make matters worse, I was very aware of the double standard. If I had done this to a student, the principal would have made it a priority to call the news stations, assemble the entire school, and then make a show of handcuffing me in the gym and escorting my butt to jail. I was actually concerned that somehow the principal would spin the blame onto me. She wouldn’t fault anything as archaic as hemlines. Her attention was on the latest buzz word in education, de-escalation. A theory that makes teachers accountable as mind readers who must anticipate, and therefore prevent, teenagers from misbehaving.
The disappointing truth is my concern wasn’t far-fetched. A few colleagues didn’t see what all the fuss was about. It might be a stretch to categorize their comments as victim-blaming, but their effect was the same. But he’s just a kid, he doesn’t know any better. Boys will be boys. You should be flattered that he was going to miss you so much.
This kid was 17. The law recognizes that by age 16, in some cases 14, a teen is intelligent enough to face adult charges. And boys need to learn how to be men. And flattered is how I feel when I receive a “thank you” card, not a tongued-assault on my face. My male colleagues seemed to get this more intuitively than the females. It made me wonder about a drawback of feminism. Had we gone so far to avoid the appearance of whining that we couldn’t recognize a legitimate violation of rights?
There are so many students in this school that six administrators are responsible for managing discipline. The administrator assigned to Greg suspended him for five days. It was a respectable punishment considering all the ways administrators’ hands can be tied when data on suspensions and expulsions affect a school’s reputation and budget.
It would have been nice, though, if the suspension had kept Greg out of the building and away from me. Instead, he kept coming to the school trying to talk to me. One day he even tried to hand-deliver a letter. Which, I was told, was completely within school policy as long as he was accompanied by an adult. Could this include any high school senior? I was nervous to be alone in my room while I was trying to finish grades and tie up loose ends for the new teacher.
The juvenile justice system seemed more considerate of my rights, but it was tricky to navigate. I received a book-thick packet of instructions from the Juvenile/Victim Assistance Unit. I submitted my victim impact statement prior to the informal hearing. This wasn’t supposed to waive my right to be present at the hearing, but after some confusion and a record snowfall that closed government buildings, I received notice the day after the rescheduled hearing. The Intake Worker presented me with two options. They’d found sufficient evidence of assault from my letter and the arresting officer. I could pursue the assault charges before a judge, or I could recommend that Greg receive probation. I was worn out. Otherwise I wouldn’t have quit my job in the first place. And ultimately I was tired of seeing this guy everywhere I turned.
The Intake Worker and I agreed to 90-days probation. In addition to the probation, Greg would be required to complete three programs about the effects of assault and abuse. The programs included trips to domestic violence support groups and ERs to see and hear from assault victims. I justified my uncharacteristic decision to back down from my day in court by convincing myself that he’d learn more from these programs than he would from a sealed record.
This incident did not take place in an impoverished city school; it happened in a county school. This was not the first time I complained about students’ sexually-charged comments about their teachers. I was not the only teacher in this school who experienced some level of sexual harassment. On several occasions I counseled teenage females who bragged about the way they were going to “go after” my male colleagues.
My sensitivity could be heightened considering that my brother, a former teacher, is serving five years in prison for a consensual “matter” with a 17-year-old. Before he gave in to meeting her off campus, he’d filed complaints with his principal that the student visited his classroom too often. (He wasn’t her teacher.) But I also have a sense from talking to teachers throughout several states that mine is not an isolated experience. Fending off unwanted sexual advances is just part of the job.