In an essay on E. Jean Carroll, Moira Donegan grimly addresses the underwhelming response that Carroll’s rape allegation against President Trump garnered. She writes, “We have stopped pretending, collectively, that we expect those on whom we bestow tremendous power to behave with commensurate responsibility.”
Like many twelve-year-old girls, I learned about the irresponsibility of the powerful through sex. This lesson was delivered at Orcutt Junior High School when not one but several white boys molested me during the late 80s. Teachers witnessed my abuse but nobody intervened. Instead, my history teacher, Mr. Pauley, blushed and continued grading papers. My art teacher, Mr. Biedinger, smirked and stared. I’d been taught that teachers were benevolent and powerful, that teachers existed to edify and protect students, but after being groped and fondled by my classmates day after day, I quit trusting teachers. I also came to intuit that the foundation of white male supremacy is hypocrisy. These do-nothing teachers proved to me that the very people who were in charge of protecting me were as likely to delight in my sexual degradation than to stop it.
During a school field trip, a science teacher, Mr. Salinas, confronted me about what he called my “bad attitude.” He told me that I had no right to act so glum, that I had it too good to sulk. He wanted to see me get with the program. He wanted to see me do something. He wanted to see me smile.
The last time I’d smiled was on picture day, the day that the abuse in my history class began.
The last time I’d smiled was on picture day, the day that the abuse in my history class began. I hadn’t yet learned to be ashamed of my lips and so I’m not trying to hide them in my school picture. The same white boys who molested me eventually added racial slurs to my molestation, calling me the N word as they lunged at my lips.
School can be so dangerous. It’s one of the two locations where a mass shooting is likeliest to take place. It’s a place where a girl or a woman is likely to be sexually assaulted. It’s where one learns to become a citizen. In fact, many schools have a citizenship grade. School is where I first heard the language of supremacy freely and gleefully exercised. Ho. Slut. Bitch. Cunt. Wetback. Beaner. Dyke. Its no coincidence that school also happens to be where gender and racial identities are in the process of dramatically crystallizing.
The boys who molested me had been taught by an older white man that white men may take what they want. These boys had been taken, molested by their little league coach, Michael Shean. By the time Shean molested my classmates, he’d been abusing young people for decades. The Mormon Church had ex-communicated him for molesting two missionaries but re-baptized him after he completed “therapy.” Upon his reentry into religious life, Shean was given educational duties. In addition to coaching, he taught Sunday school and seminary.
Like Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, the man who shut Jeffrey Epstein’s victims out of judicial proceeding in order to cut Esptein a sweetheart deal, Mr. Shean also practiced law, often representing juvenile clients pro bono. And like Mr. Pauley, Mr. Biedinger, and Mr. Salinas, Mr. Epstein once taught teenagers. In the 70s, he worked as a math and physics teacher at the Dalton School. Did I mention that my Catholic high school math teacher, Mr. Sarkisian sometimes crept up behind me to stroke my hair? Did I mention that he once approached a female student during class and hit her with a rope? Did I mention he would compliment my “exotic” appearance? Did I mention that he married a former student?
The Epstein scandal has revealed a corrupt “network” of men who harmed, exploited, and terrorized girls, but when one strips away the money, fame, and prestige, the scandal simply becomes a magnified version of what girls all over this country regularly experience, a common rite of passage into patriarchal sexual practices. Wendy C. Ortiz wrote about this initiation in Excavation, an elegant masterpiece that chronicles the loss of her virginity to her eighth grade English teacher. In a chapter titled “Why I Didn’t Tell,” Ortiz lists the reasons: “I was afraid of being blamed. I felt responsible for his acts. I was numb…”
It’s difficult not to feel numb these days. A pussy goes numb after being grabbed non-stop and I recall when news outlets first broadcast President Trump’s “locker room talk” tape, many people commenting that the behavior he described sounded strange. Who grabs someone by the pussy? The boys who molested me grabbed me by the pussy. That was how my mis-education began.
One of the few American broadsides which has spoken directly to me has been Zoe Leonard’s art piece “I Want a Dyke for President.” It opens with those lines and goes on to proclaim desire for a president who has “survived rape.” The piece concludes with an implied question: “I want to know why we started learning somewhere down the line that a president is always a clown: always a john and never a hooker. Always a boss and never a worker, always a liar, always a thief and never caught.” I can answer that question. For some of us, it began in school.