The heavy wrought iron gate squeaks as I move out onto the sidewalk. After a morning of pulling weeds and digging bulbs in my tiny Charleston courtyard, a brisk walk is just the ticket to round out my morning. As I approach the crosswalk at the intersection, I spot a small tan pickup truck slowing to stop for the light. My breath catches in my throat. For a moment, I can’t understand where this reaction comes from. And then, it comes to me.
I know that truck.
I keep my eyes focused on the stoplight with the truck in my peripheral vision and search for a tree or fence to duck behind, but it could draw his attention. There is no way out.
As I stand waiting, I am amazed at my degree of hypervigilance, like a part of my brain suddenly opens up a file that had been neatly stored in the recesses of my mind. No one waiting for this light to change would suspect the mental gymnastics I am doing to get my emotions under control. I’m equally amazed at the freedom I’ve found, all the healing that’s transpired since I last encountered this truck. And I am not going to allow this to cause a relapse of traumatic feelings.
Not today, no way. This dang light is taking forever.
Ten years ago, I started teaching second grade at a local grade school. The school administrator, Dr. Sands, highly regarded and considered a leader within our state, was meandering down my hallway. My contact with him had been limited to the interview just a month earlier, so I was surprised to hear him out and about on a Monday evening. He stepped inside my classroom doorway to check on me.
“Denise, are things going well? Are you settling into a routine?”
“Yes, thank you,” I straightened and dropped the homework assignments I’d been grading into my satchel . “I think I am getting the hang of it. I wish I had started out a bit more structured in the classroom, but I’ll know better next year.”
“Good to hear it. Hang in there, it does get easier. By the way, you sure clean up nice.” He grinned.
Strange, I thought. I am sure he was just being cordial.
“I’ll be heading out in just a few minutes. Thanks for coming by to check on me.”
Over time, his compliments on my looks became commonplace. I thought it was harmless, after all, the man was old enough to be my father. He had a lovely, fashionable wife who worked in the front office. He was probably just being nice. My mid-western farming background showed in my plainness—no makeup, little jewelry, and simple clothing. Attracting any attention, especially from men, was the farthest thought from my mind. I chalked it up to fatherly care for his employees.
Overall, the school had exceeded my expectations. They pushed for academic excellence and attention to detail, and they extended freedom to their teachers to be creative in the classroom. Their curriculum choice showed thoughtfulness, and I appreciated their push for accountability in using it. Their stellar reputation in the community drew many local residents and stationed military families, and all of this had broadened my teaching abilities and advanced my own children’s training.
Yet by April of my second year, I’d noticed some minor health issues related to the pressure of balancing the demands and meeting expectations, not least of all from Dr. Sands. I was determined to make it work.
One day, during a free period that same month, Dr. Sands came by the staff room and peeked through the window. When he saw I was alone, he walked in.
“Hey, Denise. I’m glad you’re getting a few minutes to yourself.”
He exuded tension. I barely looked up, offered a quick, “uh huh,” and kept checking off my lesson plan. It was unusual for any man to be in a closed room with a woman, even if he was the administrator. A creepy feeling rose up inside, and I kept my eyes fixed on my work. I wanted to say please leave, but I thought of his position and dismissed it.
Before I knew it, he was standing over me very close. He began rubbing up and down on my back, his face very near my ear. “Denise, I’ve been very concerned about you,” he said in a near-whisper. “I can tell you’re under a great deal of stress. You’ve missed several days this quarter already. You seem tired and you’ve lost weight. We do care and want to be here for you, but you have to let us know what we can do.”
A shiver shot up my spine where he was continuing to touch me. His face was so close, I dare not turn and look at him. I shut my eyes and the notebook and pushed my chair back to stand.
“I’m fine, really. Just fine!”
It happened so fast, I’m still not sure how I sounded. What did he want from me? He was my boss, for heaven’s sake!
I raced out of the room, my heart pounding in my chest. My mind kept replaying the feeling of his closeness, his breath in my ear. The backrub had felt violating, but was it sexual? My emotions swirled like storm clouds. Surely, this didn’t just happen.
I pushed the feelings down as I went back to finish the school day. On the drive home, the tears fell, but I successfully hid it from the kids. By the time my husband, Greg, got home from work, I’d pushed it down again, buried deep in the place other secret memories were kept. And nothing more was said.
My thoughts and emotions were a tangle the next weeks. As association secretary for all the schools in our state, Dr. Sands could squash me like a bug. Who would believe it? My children were thriving in the school and my job earned the tuition discount and paid for the rest in this much sought out charter school. I kept it to myself.
Time passed, but the damage had been done. The secret ate at me bit by bit.
One night during a routine call to Mom, I finally let it out. We were talking about my continued struggle at the school. I told her everything and she confirmed my suspicions.
“That back rub seems very sexual.”
“Yeah? I keep wondering if I could have led him on.”
“Denise, this is not your fault! He could have the hots for you if you wore a burlap sack. You’re very attractive and personable, and he should never have put his hands on you under any circumstance. You have something on him now. These things have a way of surfacing. You need to tell Greg. He loves you and trusts you.”
I was crying by this point. “Thanks Mom.” I swiped at the tears. “I will. I think I’m realizing it was wrong.”
Yet while I appreciated her understanding and support, I thought about the other secret she didn’t know—the deeper one I’d kept far longer. I knew my feelings about Dr. Sands were connected and amplified by it and my innocent heart had suspected nothing that time either.
Dr. Sands had no idea what he’d ignited. Another man had used his power to manipulate me before—a bath I’d been given many years ago, a secret bath my step-father, Jack, had promised would be fun one night when he was alone with me.
If only I hadn’t been too afraid to tell Mom then, maybe she’d have defended me. Would she be so quick to stand up against Jack now? I thought it’d been resolved long ago, but there was no denying how quickly it poured out to haunt me. In that moment, I knew what had to be done: it was time to stand up and say, “No. Never again.”
The last week of school, our superintendent organized the meeting with the school board and Dr. Sands. Greg and I entered the conference room of all men, seated around a big table. We sat at the end with the superintendent conducting the interview. Dr. Sands sat across from us flanked by the others as if being protected. I worked to keep my emotions in check and remain logical, factual. The superintendent asked me to describe what had happened that day in the staff room. I gave the story exactly as it had transpired.
When I finished, he asked, “Denise, don’t you think Dr. Sands was just being concerned about you?” I hung my head, but he continued. “You had been sick and he was trying to convey that we care about you as part of teaching family. This must be related to your past. You shared you had a difficult childhood when we hired you, remember?”
“No, I don’t feel it was just concern. He had been complimenting my appearance, setting me up for who-knows-what for months. Then, to come into my free period and rub my back is just unacceptable. He is my boss. Isn’t there some rule in your employee code against being in a room alone with women, not to mention physical contact? I tried to convince myself for months that it was nothing, but I can’t keep making excuses for what he did. I did suffered trauma as a child, and this did bring all that up for me again, but it does not justify what he did. I am not in here to simply point fingers, but I’m concerned how widespread this might be. You all have a responsibility to see that the teachers and students here are respected and not violated.”
Greg spoke next. His usual quiet nature was gone. He stood up and pointed his finger in Dr. Sands’ face. “You put your hands on my wife, and there is nothing more to say about it!”
Everyone was shocked into silence. Dr. Sands’ face went white. I got up and we left the office without another word. We pulled out of the driveway and I left my professional life as we knew it.
While I was relieved not to have to face Dr. Sands everyday anymore, I would miss my fellow teachers and my students, and the many friends we’d made. It reminded me of my past, how I always felt as though I was going it alone, with no real defense against invasion but to run away from the situation. Dr. Sands had become Jack to me, preying on those he felt he could use.
As we stopped at the edge of the parking lot, I leaned over, hugged and kissed Greg. No one, apart from my own mother had ever stood up for me with such strength. He validated that Dr. Sands had hurt me, and that was enough. After ten years of marriage, that one act bonded us in a way we’d never been. I’d believed Greg to be my protector before, but today he’d proven it and defended my honor. In all I had done to heal in the previous weeks, his affirmation set me on the path of true emotional restoration.
I drove to Greenville to file a complaint, but it was his word against mine, so we were at an impasse. I wanted to throw rocks at the school building but instead, I simply gave my affidavit to help any other woman who might become the victim of such treatment there. A representative said that while it didn’t seem much punishment, it would help establish evidence should someone else come forward with an actionable charge.
I left peaceful, knowing my story could make all the difference for someone.
As I watch the pickup truck pass, I smile. I’m now a licensed counselor, like the one I sat with for several months after those events. I now better understand traumatic experiences and how to refuse to be overcome by them. By confronting Dr. Sands that day, I lost our my position and school for my children, but I have no doubt it was the better direction for me. My experience has been used to help others.
It could have easily gone the other way for me, stuffing the past, re-experiencing the injury, and allowing anxiety over keeping the secrets hidden to prevent me from moving forward. But on this side of the light, I can look at that pickup and know I’ve found a better path.
I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain their anonymity in some instances I have changed the names of individuals and places, I may have changed some identifying characteristics and details such as physical properties, occupations and places of residence.