I am five years old and I ride the school bus to and from kindergarten every day. One day, a boy, a first grader named John, slides into the bench seat next to me. He loops his arm around me and tells me that I am pretty. I recoil from him, looking desperately out the window to see how close to home I am. At home that night I tell my mom what happened. She tells me to talk the bus driver. The following day on the way home John is next to me again, this time trying to plant kisses on my cheek. I wriggle away from him and make my way up to the bus driver. She doesn’t approve, but what can she really do from way up in the front seat of a full-size school bus. The driver tells me to sit as close to the front of the bus as possible and John to “knock it off”. The next day John is at it again and the bus driver notices nothing over the din of rowdy children. I feel utterly hopeless. No one is helping me. That evening, I tell my mom again what is happening. This time my dad is home as well and hears my story. My mom tells me she will talk to the the school and to the bus driver herself. My dad, on the other hand, tells me to punch John in the nose. My mother admonishes my father for encouraging violence. The next afternoon John presses me up against the window and leans over my face to kiss me. Without thinking I recoil my arm, close my fist, and sock him in the face. I feel a deep sense of satisfaction as I see bright red blood trickle out of his nose. John runs, crying, to the front of the bus to complain to the driver. The driver tells him to sit down, shut up, and that he got what he deserved. John and I take the same bus to and from school for the next two and half years and he never says a word to me again.
I am thirteen years old and sitting on the floor of the gym before P.E. starts. A boy in my class I’ve never spoken to before named Cedric brushes me as he walks by. He mutters under his breath how pretty I am and how he wants to “get with me”. I freeze, ramrod straight, legs crossed, and I remember John from the bus. Over the next week Cedric finds ways to stealthily touch me in the gym, his arm falling briefly around my shoulders, whispering his now overtly sexual thoughts to me. I think about punching him. But Cedric has a good six inches and fifty pounds on me; I am afraid of him. I tell my mother who immediately tells the school. My mother, who normally avoids confrontation at all costs, is livid and calling for the boy’s suspension. The school invites my mother and me in for a meeting with the guidance counselor where she says to us that poor Cedric is, well, poor, and comes from a “bad family situation”. The guidance counselor tells us that there will be no consequences for Cedric. And then, my mother and I stare at her in disbelief as she tells me that I should be careful not to “encourage” him. I should try to stay away from him. My mother gathers her courage and says through pursed lips that either I will be moving gym classes or Cedric will. My mother volunteers that she would be happy to pick me up every day from school at P.E. time and return me after class if that is what it takes. The guidance counselor says she will see what she can do Cedric is moved to another class. I occasionally see him in the halls and when I do he leers at me.
Middle is five years old. On the way home from school she complains to me that a boy from another class (the four year old class, in fact) has been chasing her on the playground, trying to kiss her. I stiffen and think of my days on the school bus. Looking at her petite frame strapped into her car seat I can hardly believe that I was on a bus on my own at her age. She looks so small and vulnerable. I ask Middle how she feels about being chased and kissed. She tells me she doesn’t like it. I tell her that no one should touch her body in any way (especially kissing) that she doesn’t like. I tell her that if anything happens to her body that bothers her, she should tell a teacher immediately. The next time I drop her off at school I tell the teacher what Middle told me. The teacher tells me that she and her colleagues are aware of these sorts of games and statements and also were concerned about them. The teacher goes on to tell me that she thinks a lot of it stems from games of chase or tag where instead of saying “I’m going to get you/tag you!” the kids would playfully say “I’m going to kiss you!” The teacher finished by uncomfortably admitting that such antics usually seemed playful but that she had also seen it also get to the point where a child was clearly not playing anymore. She concluded by telling me that the teachers were trying to steer the kids away from talking about kissing and that they would bring up the issue in circle time with the kids. I walk away from the conversation feeling unsatisfied. I feel that I should have insisted on something more, but I am at a loss as to what.
Older is seven years old and has a list of girls in his class that he has a crush on. I am surprised that Older has these feelings so soon, but Husband tells me this is normal. Husband assures me that he noticed girls around the same age. Older talks dreamily of one girl in particular and tells me of his plans to woo her. He lets her go in front of him in the snack line and compliments her schoolwork. He tells her point blank that he “likes” her but she tells him that she just wants to be friends. Older relates all of this to me and then tells me with determination that he is going “make her kiss me”. I stop him, a little bit horrified. Does my seven year old really wan to kiss a girl? What does he mean to “make her kiss me”? Where did that idea come from? I talk to him for a long time about how everyone’s body belongs to them and only them and that we never touch anyone or make anyone do anything with their bodies that they don’t enthusiastically want. I tell him that seven years old his too young for kissing. I tell Husband who talks to him as well. And I wonder how, exactly, to make sure that my son is never the one making a girl or a woman feel threatened.
I am thirty-five years old. I am dropping Middle off at school. I take her over to the sandbox to play with two of her friends. I watch the three girls in the sandbox play nicely for a few minutes and then it is time to come in for circle time. Middle runs inside with one of her friends and I walk away from the sandbox when I saw one of the boys, let’s call him Jack, come up to one of Middle’s friends, we’ll call her Jane, in the sandbox. Jack had been playing a game of tag with some of the other children and ended up in the sandbox when it was time to go in. Jane squats down to adjust her shoe and Jack runs up behind her, puts his arms and weight on her, and begins to kiss her. Jane tells him “No, stop, I don’t like that” but he doesn’t stop. I am only a few feet away from them and walk towards them, visions of tossing a five year old boy across the playground going through my head. I raise my voice and tell Jack “get off of Jane” and “listen to her words – she is telling you no”. A teacher also sees the incident but he is significantly farther away. The teacher comes over to Jack and Jane to deal with the aftermath and I walk away. I find the lead teacher and I tell her what happened. I go home and send emails. To the lead teacher and to the director of the school. I debate and then email the girl’s mom as well. I know I would want to know if something similar happened to Middle. I debate emailing Jack’s parents as well. In the end I don’t send the email to the boy’s parents and I am still not sure that was the right decision. The teacher and director email me back and promise action.
That night and for several nights after, I talk to Middle and Older. I reiterate again and again that they are in control of their bodies and that no one ever has the right to touch them without their permission. Middle asks me what happens if she says no and another person doesn’t listen; what happens if she can’t get to a teacher. I tell them about John on the bus when I was five years old. I remember my dad and I tell Middle and Older that while we almost always try to solve our problems with words or by asking others for help, this is one situation, the only situation really, where she and Older have my permission, my encouragement even, to get physical if they need to. I spell it out for Middle and Older, “If someone is hurting your body or touching you in a way that you don’t want, I want you to scream, push, kick, and hit to get away from them.” I add on that no matter what happens, I always want to know about it too. Older is incredulous that I would encourage physical force; Middle looks pleased. I am uneasy, on guard for what the future might bring.