He seemed nice. So unassuming. A slender man with a stubbly gray beard and glasses, George* introduced himself as I walked into my classroom on the first day of my new job. In his mid-fifties, he radiated a calm, laid back persona, not rude, but one that was simply declarative.
George came with the position. For as long as anyone could remember, he had been the teaching assistant for the juvenile offender class I was hired to teach. He was a fixture. He was someone who was heavily entrenched in the school’s culture.
As an experienced teacher, I had worked with people before where it just clicked and a great friendship bloomed, though I didn’t immediately feel this with George. I could sense we would never have a tight bond, but he was okay. Besides, my main purpose wasn’t to be there so that I could make friends; I had a job to do.
Appreciative that George was there to help me with my questions and explain how things had typically worked in the past, the first day went well. Interspersed between school and district wide meetings, I spent a few hours with George and at the end of the day, felt we could have a professional working relationship.
By the second day, I had a good idea of how things ran and began reviewing records of the students who were assigned to my class. I was squatting down in front of a massive file cabinet of folders when George walked over.
With the same calm demeanor that he had shown from the beginning, he said to me, “I can see your thong.”
I was shocked. It took me a moment to process what he had just said. My brain registered a sense of embarrassment and surprise and so in the moment, the only thing I could think to do was be nice and blow it off.
I hurriedly pulled my shirt down over my pants and kind of laughed and said, “Thanks for letting me know, George. I guess I will really have to be careful when the students arrive.” While part of me was not okay with what he had said, I chalked it up to him just advising me of a situation and placed the incident into the back of my mind.
On the third day in the classroom, I busily prepared to get everything ready for the students’ arrival the next day. George seemed fine, like always. He was himself and I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt regarding the previous day’s comment, that is, until the afternoon rolled around.
That afternoon, at my desk, deep in concentration while finalizing my course syllabi, I sensed someone beside me. I looked up to see George standing by my desk, looking down at me. His eyes were definitely on my breasts, or at least on my cleavage. Suddenly self-conscious, I instinctively tugged at my blouse in order to make sure I was minimally exposed.
I asked George if he needed anything and was stunned when he said, “Yes, I was just thinking we should go away for the weekend.”
My mind reeled with the confirmation that there was no way what George had just said could be construed as anything other than a sexual invitation. Though I could feel my cheeks flushing with the uncomfortableness of the situation, I knew I had a long year in store with George. I didn’t want to alienate him and damage any chance at a good working relationship so I chose to calmly but firmly shut down his offer and any notions he may have about me.
In a neutrally firm voice, I said, “Thanks for the offer, but I am in a relationship with someone and I don’t think he would be okay with that.”
George accepted my answer and went back to work. I hoped that my answer made things clear to him. In actuality, though divorced, I wasn’t really involved in a relationship with someone. I just told George I was, hoping he would get the message. I knew I needed George’s professional help and in order to maintain a peaceful working relationship, I chose not say anything to anyone about what George had said. Surely he understood that I had made myself clear.
Unfortunately, as the weeks went by, George continued to make risqué comments. The kind that dangled on the edge of being sexual in nature, yet lingering just on the edge of a compliment. Other comments had a more direct sexuality to them, especially George’s sexually-themed jokes.
Still, I said nothing to the administration about what was happening. I knew I served at the pleasure of a mercurial administration, my employment subject to termination at any time. I was a new person in an environment where many long time employees like George were deeply entrenched. My roots didn’t run that deeply.
I knew the reality. If I reported George, no matter the outcome, I felt that given the culture of the administration, there would have always been a lingering question as to the authenticity of my allegations. I also knew I would be asked why I had waited so long to say anything.
The administration would never come right out and say it, but the powers that be did not like teachers who spoke out, even about something like sexual harassment. They would deny that if asked, but again, the culture of the school showed me a completely different reality.
I had to be practical. I was being paid well and as the single mother of a son, I couldn’t just give up my job or risk doing anything to lose it. I made a tough decision: I would say nothing, no matter what. I didn’t want to be “marked.”
I continued to take George’s comments in stride. I tried to always handle the situation in a non-confrontational way, knowing that George, although he was a teaching assistant – technically MY assistant, held more sway in the school than I did.
Then it happened. One day he made a risqué comment to me in front of the students, a group of ten hormonally-raging teenaged males. George had definitely crossed a line. Without saying a word, I picked up my radio and called for an officer to please come to my classroom. When he arrived, I asked the officer if he would please stay with my class while George and I stepped outside. I wasn’t going to let this one go.
I took a deep breath, looked straight at George and in the sternest tone I could muster, I deliberately said, “George, it is inappropriate for you to make risqué or sexually suggestive comments to me. It is definitely inappropriate for you to make them in front of the students.” I then showed George a notebook I had retrieved from my locked desk drawer while I was waiting for the officer to come to my room.
In the notebook I had noted every single sexually themed, risqué comment, going all the way back to the first day in the classroom. George looked at the pages as I turned them, while I continued to say, “George, I have enough here for you to lose your job. If you ever make a suggestive or sexually explicit comment to me, you are done. Even if it is just a joke. Do you understand?”
George swallowed hard, his eyes opened wide. “It won’t happen again,” he replied, in a tone best described as contrite.
I knew the reality George was facing: Teaching assistants do not make very much money and like me, George was raising a son on his own. I wasn’t blind to this fact and can’t deny this added one more reason I chose not to turn him in to the administration.
George and I continued to warily work together every day. As the school year drew to a close, I made a decision. I didn’t want to spend another year with George, period. I didn’t have the authority or clout to ask him to be transferred to a different classroom, allowing me to have a new assistant. I found another job, packed my things up and checked out on the last day, never to see or speak to George again.
I am ten years older now, ten years wiser and stronger. My son is older but I am still a single mother. I think often to what I would do if I were now in the situation I was back then. Would I turn in someone who was sexually harassing me, or would I let it ride, fearful of the repercussions I may face as a result?
Most will criticize me for this -- including me -- but my totally honest answer is that I don’t know. While I know what the officially “right” thing to do is, the reality is that sometimes, other priorities and considerations come first. I would love to say that now, at the age of 43, I would report any type of sexual harassment immediately, but that might be a lie. In truth, I would have to weigh the pros and cons of the situation and how it would affect me, my family.
Maybe it is wrong, even selfish, to first think about how telling might affect me over others, but I admit this factors into the equation. I know one thing I would certainly not allow to happen now: I would not give away my power by letting that type of harassment slide by. I would immediately confront the individual and the situation, making clear I would not put up with one more incident.
Some may be wondering if I am advocating for individuals to not report incidents of sexual harassment. Nothing could be further from the truth. The choice has to lie within each individual and each situation.
While my experience with George was unpleasant, it did prepare me well. I learned how to stand up for myself without needing outside intervention. I learned how to take my power back and I am certainly stronger and wiser for it.