The first time I can remember an adult man making me uncomfortable, I think I was about 6 years old. If I’d met him at my age today, I wouldn’t call him a man, I don’t think. He was probably only in his late teens, early twenties at most. This is what my twenty-two year old mind rationalizes. But to little me, he was a freaking man, and that impression clouds my memory.
He was also an art teacher at my summer camp. I think his name was David.
When I was younger, I would go to summer camp at the local elementary school. A lot of my friends did too, as well as students from the four other elementary schools in the district. The other girls in my camp group weren’t people I knew, although most of them knew each other, so there were a lot of times in the beginning of camp when we were supposed to be quiet in an activity and they’d all be talking. I mention this to highlight that while they got attention for talking to the friends they already had, I would stick out as a quiet girl. This was years before I became a quiet person. I was actually quite boisterous and loud as a child and I made friends pretty easily, but I also didn’t stress about it. So for the first few days of camp, I was very content keeping to myself in our group’s classroom activities, then ramping up the energy when I was back with my friends in the gym. My gym antics won me a lot of new friends. My classroom silences won over my teachers, sometimes a little too much.
David liked me because he though I was so polite, and also pretty. He said this, not just to me, but to the rest of my group, and really anyone around whenever we happened to bump into each other. The bumping into each other happened a lot more than you’d expect. I didn’t just see him in class. He was on the playground. He was in the hallways. I saw David more than I saw any other teachers or counselors, and each time I ran into him, he’d praise me. He got into the habit of just picking me up and putting me high into the air. He made a song about me, and he’d dance around like a lunatic singing it. When I saw him in the hallways, he wouldn’t let me go by without hugging him first.
I hated all of it.
At first, it was okay. It even helped me befriend the other girls in the group, but barely. The thing was, promises on promises, I was the only kid in camp who was being sung to. It made me stand out. I was always the first kid who “got” to be lifted into the air; it made me cool that I didn’t even try for it.
But I didn’t like standing out in this way. I didn’t feel that I merited preferential treatment. I found it strange, the way David held me when he lifted me up, with his hand spread so that his palm held my stomach while his fingers could press into my chest. When I was walking in the hallway, I just wanted to be able to walk without being stopped and pressed into a man’s body. Being serenaded made me boil over with embarrassment from the first day, but no one seemed to notice or care. If anything, my embarrassment made them all laugh, and David played off of that and hammed it up even harder.
The only thing I appreciated was that he appreciated how polite I was. My mom had stressed politeness pretty hard to me, and I knew it would make her proud that an adult had taken notice of my good behavior. So throughout the entire summer of camp, I was incredibly polite to David. I endured everything with a smile, and if I felt particularly tired or uncomfortable on a certain day, I would simply run and hide in the bathroom until he was no longer around. That’s how I got through the summer.
The next summer, I went back to camp and David was still there. I didn’t want to go through another summer of alternating hiding and endurance, so I decided to change my politeness tactics. That first day, we were coming inside from recess and David was in the doorway, waiting for me. He growled out my name, then began to bend down to scoop me into a hug.
“Hi David,” I said to him, extending my right hand for him to shake (in place of the hug). “Would you mind not singing to me this summer, please?”
In the car ride home, I told my mom about how David had been making me uncomfortable for so long, but how I had finally asked him to stop. I knew that she would be proud of me for sticking up for myself while using the tools she had taught me.
She was disappointed in me.
“Khalilah,” she said, stretching the middle syllable of my name ever so slightly, “That’s so sad. You must have made poor David feel bad. Just because you’re feeling sensitive, you still need to make sure you aren’t hurting someone. What if he doesn’t sing to any kids anymore?” Good, I thought.
But that’s the thing about childhood, and having behaviors ingrained into your system. I knew how creepy and strange about myself David made me feel, but my mom also made me feel incredibly guilty for trying to get the source of those feelings to stop. I’m sure she didn’t understand the extent to which David’s behavior with me was Not Okay. I’m not even sure if I’ve done a good enough job of outlining it to the readers here. I don’t remember everything that happened fifteen years ago, only a couple years after my memory had fully developed to begin with. All I remember now are snapshots of running into him, and the feelings of shame, discomfort, and mild fear this man brought to me. And then I also remember that for the rest of the car ride, my mother impressed upon me the importance of thinking of others, and not just our own feelings. That the feelings of others are vastly more important than our own, even if we don’t particularly like the others in question, even if they make us feel slightly unsafe or upset. By the end of the car ride, I felt like a piece of shit for speaking up for myself. Not that I had the vocabulary to explain that.
It turns out it didn’t even matter. The next day when I saw David, he made me hug him. And then he picked me up and sang to me, and didn’t put me down until the end of his song. I decided that if he couldn’t even listen to my polite request, I didn’t need to waste my time enduring him anymore. Thanks to my mother, I knew better than to stick up for myself any further, so I opted to spend the rest of the summer hiding in the bathroom whenever I thought he was around.