I posted this last summer, but then took it back down after a few hours. I was afraid it would be taken the wrong way. My intent in sharing this story is not to malign anyone’s reputation but to emphasize the importance of standing up for oneself and one another. As a running coach, a college instructor, an aunt and maybe one day a mother, it is my hope that more girls are braver than I was.
Like many teenage girls, the thing I wanted most in the world was to be left alone.
I was not beautiful. I was not outgoing. I did not matter.
I was smart. I was artsy. I was quiet. I was a Nice Girl, so it should have been easy for me to fly under everyone’s radar.
Maybe that’s why I was an easy target for him.
My senior year of high school, I had two classes that met in the vo-tech building, which is a five-minute bus ride from the main campus. The bus driver was a gruff, clownish old man named Tom. Most of the students who rode the bus had a jokey relationship with him, which involved light insults and mock threats. So when Tom started making fun of my hairstyle — a disheveled platinum pixie cut — I took it in stride.
But as the months progressed, his taunts took a different turn.
“You need to comb your hair.”
Then it became:
“Can’t your parents afford a comb?”
“Did your boyfriend help you get your hair that way?”
The other students on the bus thought it was hilarious.
“Tom is so funny,” said Conner, a guy I sort of dated.
“I can’t believe the things that come out of his mouth,” said Smith.
“That’s our Tom,” added Tina.
And so on it went. I was a little slut with bad hair.
Then one day, Tom hobbled into my photography class. The teacher was in the darkroom with the students who were developing film that day.
“Oh, there she is!” Tom announced.
“Ha! Tom’s looking for you,” Conner whispered, nudging me in the ribs.
I looked down into my negative sleeves and focused on the inverse images printed in the little squares.
“Little girl, you need to comb your hair,” Tom said.
I zeroed in on one image showing a horse. Which one was it? Mine? My sister’s?
Tom took a few steps closer.
“Do you ever comb your hair?”
The horse in the negative was mine.
Tom took a few more steps.
“Your hair is a mess.”
If I had just stayed home that day, I could have avoided this whole thing. My parents would both be at work, and I’d be out currying my horse’s hide until it shined like gold. He would mouth greedily after the last few oats in his feed bucket while I tightened the girth of his saddle.
I could feel Tom behind me.
If I had just stayed home, Tom wouldn’t be standing behind me. I’d be riding my horse. He was a high-strung animal, and I was a high-strung rider. Some say that’s a dangerous combination, but I found that singing little songs kept us both calm.
I started to hum.
“Little girl, are you listening?”
Then his hands were on my chest, yanking me upright.
“Little girl, you need to comb your hair,” he yelled into my ear, grinding his palm into the top of my head and pushing my bangs forward over my face.
The other students erupted into laughter.
“Tom, you goofy son of a bitch, what are you doing here?”
“I was just taking a walk. Wouldn’t hurt you to take a walk every once in a while, fat ass.”
“Hey, Tom, shut up.”
“I’ll shut you up.”
“Tom is so funny,” Conner said to me.
“Yeah. Funny,” I said.
Only one other student didn’t think he was funny, and she told both the principal at our high school and the principal of the vo-tech school about what happened.
“He is out of line,” she told me.
And it occurred to me that she was right. His attention was uninvited, unwanted. He did not have permission to say or do those things. He was wrong.
But Tom saw it another way.
“I didn’t mean anything,” he growled as I boarded the bus the next day. “It was a joke.”
“Just look at you. Who would even think anyone would mean anything?”
“I am sorry.”
“You should be, you stupid bitch. You’re not even pretty.”
“No. No, I’m not.”
“Sit down and shut up.”
When my rescuer tried to board the bus, he closed the doors in her face and drove away. Neither principal ever asked me for my side of the story. I suppose it’s easier to throw a student under the bus, so to speak, than it is to investigate a problem with a long-time employee.
It’s been so long since that happened. For a while I didn’t think about it. But last summer was my 10-year high-school reunion. Our class president created a Facebook page, where she invited classmates to post old photos and share favorite memories.
Seeing some of those names and faces gave me a bad feeling in my stomach.
Then I read in my hometown paper about how Tom had retired, and with much fanfare. The article made a big deal about how long Tom drove that bus, how many students he came in contact with and all the nice things he does around the community.
I wanted to puke.
Nice Girls are socialized to avoid conflict. When Tom confronted me about whatever slap on the wrist he got, I felt guilty for bringing that onto him. Even thinking about it now, part of me wonders if I am overreacting in some way. He said he was only joking.
But when do these things stop being jokes? And even if everyone else was laughing, what was the punchline?
Because I don’t think it’s very funny.