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When I was 10 years old, a group of boys in my class took it upon themselves to make the cafeteria an unbearable place for me.
At the time, I didn't know that what they were doing was sexual harassment. In fact, I only half-understood the perverted jokes they made as I sat there trying to calmly eat my Lunchables. All I knew was that my stomach tightened when the bell rang for lunch, that I cringed every time I sat down to eat my meal, and that I often went without eating because of it.
It was fifth grade, and we'd just completed our lessons in Human Growth and Development, learning about our (and each other's) body parts. Sex wasn't covered in much of the lessons, save for "the basics" (sperm and egg meet to make a baby), and at that point in time, my knowledge of the birds and the bees was fairly limited. But a group of boys in my class who I dubbed "The Pervs" made it clear that they knew more about it and wanted me to know, too.
There were three or four boys in the group, but it all started with Jorge, who was undoubtedly the Perv Ringleader. We had assigned seating during lunchtime and as I was a fairly well-behaved kid, my teacher thought it would be a good idea to have one of the "troublemakers" in class sit right next to me.
I usually brought the same food to school day after day: a bag of chips or a Handi-Snack, a sandwich, fruit or a snack cake, and a juice box. But the juice didn't always come in a box. Sometimes it came inside a '90s-era Squeeze-It bottle. And whenever that happened, out came the jokes. All the boys would stare at me as I drank from what they saw as a phallic-shaped bottle, teasing me and making crude comments about me. Sometimes, they'd snatch the bottle away from me and put it up against their bodies as though it were their own penises, then return it to me to see if I would drink from it.
Other times, they'd make lewd comments about how the red-tinted juice was a girl's period blood. They'd squirt the juice on their food or on my food and talk about how disgusting it was. Seeing slices of bread soaked in the red juice made me feel sick. Everything about those lunches made me feel sick, and they could tell, which just fueled them to continue.
While my mother had instructed me on how to deal with someone trying to touch me inappropriately — warning me never to be alone with anyone at school, to say no, and run if someone tried to do something I didn't want them to do and immediately let a trusted adult know what was happening — no one warned me about this form of sexual harassment. Maybe they just didn't know it existed.
While the term "sexual harassment" was coined sometime in the 1970s, it was only beginning to gain traction in the 1990s after the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas controversy, but that wasn't exactly common knowledge inside an elementary school. That doesn't mean kids weren't being harassed (or in my case, harassing one another) in schools before then — just that there wasn't language to acknowledge what was happening.
Statistics show that roughly one in four middle school students encounters some form of sexual harassment on school premises, and there is evidence of its detrimental effects on students. A report by the American Association of University Women found that 22% of girls and 14% of boys had trouble sleeping, that 37% of girls and 25% of boys avoided school, and that these children all wound up with decreased productivity because of sexual harassment.
When it was happening to me, I wanted to brush it off. After all, I grew up believing the same tired BS notion that "boys will be boys." Even when I cracked one day and went to my (male) teacher, in tears, I found no consolation nor any justice. Instead, my teacher told me I needed to find a way to deal with things other than crying.
"You won't last in middle school if this is how you react to those boys."
It was the run-of-the-mill "boys will be boys" response, and it would be just as wrong now as it was back then. Apparently, it wasn't their fault they were harassing me; it was my fault for letting it get to me. I experienced sexual harassment and victim blaming in one fell swoop that day, and wouldn't realize its impact for many years.
Later that year, our class went on a field trip to the science museum and Jorge got suspended for taking his penis out in the planetarium and peeing on the floor. Our entire class was punished as well for his behavior, and our next field trip was canceled. I never saw Jorge or those other boys again after that year.
While I've certainly encountered more harassment throughout the years, I don't think any of the subsequent encounters affected me as deeply as those days in the cafeteria. When I think of the little girl I once was, sitting captive among those boys, my stomach in knots from how uncomfortable I was, how helpless I felt, it only enrages me that not one adult was able or willing to do a damn thing about it.
Kids need to be taught boundaries. They need to know what sexual harassment is, and they need to know it's not just a joke. Teachers like the one I had need to learn this as well, or get the hell out of the classroom, where it's obvious they're only doing more harm than good. If it happened to me, it's certainly happening to other kids in their cafeterias right now.