I am a firm believer that in order to become an anti-oppressive educator and advocate, one must fully understand the nature of oppression. While finishing my dissertation last year, I spent a significant amount of time studying Iris Young’s Five Faces of Oppression, and I wasn’t prepared to uncover what I did about my own relationship to one of the five faces—powerlessness.
In his book "The Politics of Education" (1985), Paulo Freire asserts that powerlessness is the most insidious form of oppression because it allows people to oppress themselves and others. When we feel powerless, we convince ourselves that we don’t have the capacity to right the wrongs of injustice. Consequently, we do nothing. Such was my experience as a fourteen-year-old girl in high school.
The guilt that I carry over something that happened over twenty years ago is something that cannot be measured: guilt that I didn’t tell anyone; guilt that I didn’t speak up and prevent my attacker from assaulting other women; guilt that I wore a short skirt and a belly-baring top on that fateful day; guilt that 99.9% of my friends and family are learning of this experience for the first time while reading this piece.
On the rare occasions when I have revealed this shocking experience from my past, the disclosure came about quite unexpectedly and without any pomp or circumstance. I told my husband about it one random evening during our second year of marriage. It was uneventful.
I can’t remember if it was depicted in some movie or TV show that we were watching, but the words, “Oh yea, that happened to me” emerged unexpectedly from my lips. What followed from my end were a series of minimizing comments: “It wasn’t a big deal. I wasn’t raped.” Yet, when I finished justifying the actions of the older boy who robbed me of more than just my dignity when he assaulted me at the age of fourteen, my husband appeared horrified.
“That shouldn’t have happened to you,” he replied. “Why didn’t you tell anyone?”
It’s a question that puzzles me to this day.
The Story I Never Told
Considering it was the middle of summer, it wasn’t really uncommon for me to be home alone. My parents both worked, and my brothers had summer jobs and football practices to attend. The only specific detail I remember being particularly out of the ordinary was the phone call I received from an older boy.
He asked what I was up to, if I was home and if he could stop by. My heart leaped. At fourteen I was admittedly “boy crazy” and this was an event that would surely make its way into my diary.
After all, it wasn’t every day that an older boy called to ask “What’s up?” He wasn’t a lowly freshman. He had a car and a license. My initiation into high school was looming, and I remember thinking how comforting it would be to spark up a relationship with someone whom I trusted to make the transition from timid eighth grade girl to confident high school adolescent less intimidating.
Shortly after our phone call ended, I ran upstairs to change. I donned a strategically short, plaid mini skirt prior to his arrival, one that I was confident would impress him. I paired it with a belly-bearing black top from the now non-existent tween clothing store 5-7-9, which was a favorite of girls my age back in junior high. It was an outfit that my mother wouldn’t have approved of, and it made me feel like less of the fourteen-year-old girl that I undoubtedly was and more like the woman he inevitably wanted me to be. I was elated when he arrived at my front door, which I answered because I was home alone.
I won’t rehash every vivid detail, although it is funny—for lack of a better word—to reflect on what I do and don’t remember about the event … about the assault.
I remember how he pinned me to the ground forcefully the minute he walked through the front door, right on the living room floor. I remember the burning pain I felt in my wrists as he secured them above my head and pressed them aggressively into the rough, cream, living room carpet. I remember his roaming hands forcing their way up my skirt and onto my chest, over my clothes. I remember the popcorn ceiling staring back at me, wondering if it was judging us for the nonconsensual sin that was being committed beneath it. I remember experiencing a paralyzing fear that I haven’t felt since that dreadful day. I remember him grinding aggressively against me for what seemed like an eternity—again, fully clothed and not speaking. I remember screaming things like “Stop!” and “No!” vividly, too many times to count. I remember that the room seemed both loud and quiet. I remember him being incredibly distant and yet very close.
It seemed that something so foreign to me, yet so intimate, would involve some kind of romantic kissing. There was no kissing. There was no tenderness. Did he hear me? Did he not notice the tear that was forming in my right eye, a tear that I struggled to prevent from rolling down my cheek because I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction?
What had I done to warrant what felt like some sneak attack on my innocence? Why did I feel so dirty? When would it stop? Why couldn’t I prevent the aforementioned tear from escaping?
As an inexperienced girl, I knew nothing about male anatomy or how the birds interacted with the bugs—or was it the bees—and I felt completely and utterly confused, helpless and powerless.
Then, without any fanfare, he stood up and adjusted himself. Without saying a single word, and with complete pragmatism and simplicity, he walked out the front door as nonchalantly as he had entered and left me alone, practically lifeless and absolutely violated on the floor. I lay there, attempting to make sense of the past few minutes … hours … How long had it been? Yet, there was no making sense of this phenomenon, this thing that I didn’t even have the vocabulary to properly articulate.
We never spoke of the event. I told no one.
My Story is Alarmingly Common
As a high school English teacher, the irony is not lost on me that I am a mentor and role model to girls who are the same age as I was when it happened. Now, as an adult woman, I know that my story is alarmingly common.
Which leads me back to powerlessness.
Educators must reflect on the intersectionality of oppression, and how it leads to feelings of powerlessness within our students. While my story—which I’ve decided to share on International Women’s Day—unfortunately resonates with countless women, I am not ignorant to the fact that it is the story of countless people.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC),
- “Nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) in the United States have been raped at some time in their lives, including completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or alcohol/drug-facilitated completed penetration."
- "Most female victims of completed rape (79.6%) experienced their first rape before the age of 25; 42.2% experienced their first completed rape before the age of 18 years."
A feeling of powerlessness is absolutely associated with rape and sexual assault, and often the product of various forms of trauma and oppression. Regardless of where feelings of individual powerlessness derive, it’s cathartic to share our stories. It helps us to reclaim our power.
We have to be intentional about creating safe spaces for students to share their narratives so that they can combat the messages they receive about their own powerlessness in the world. Otherwise, what might they suppress for twenty years?
We must teach our students—all of our students—that there is immense power in elevating our voices and our experiences. Deeming my experience as extraneous simply because I didn’t have the words or the courage to articulate something that happened twenty-three years ago doesn’t minimize what occurred.
At a time when social-emotional learning is at the forefront of professional development; when educators debate the factors which contribute to why kids lack coping skills to deal with the everyday stresses of life; when mental health, depression, and anxiety are driving the discussions we’re having in our schools in the midst of a pandemic; educators are uniquely positioned to listen to students and to help them reclaim their power.
When we ignore the stories of others, however traumatic and inconvenient those stories may be, we rob them of the opportunities to reclaim their power. Consequently, we must be fearless in our efforts as educators to empower all students to tell their stories without fear of intimidation, judgment, persecution or oppression.
As for me, I’m finally, officially reclaiming my power. No more guilt. No more silence. No more shame. No more powerlessness.
Happy International Women’s Day!