I went to a junior high school named after a famous Western explorer—John C. Fremont—but for some reason our mascot was a lancer: a knight bent low on his horse holding out a spear, intent on either attack or self-defense. I never questioned the incongruity at the time, but now it seems to fit Las Vegas. Nothing quite matches up there. In a desert with a scarce supply of water, pools and fountains abound. Under a bright sun, neon lights shine all day long. The daughters of showgirls go to school with the daughters of Mormon missionaries.
Our school was painted mustard yellow, trimmed with sky blue, and consisted of long rectangular buildings flanked by cobalt blue lockers and a central quad made up of concrete and patchy grass. Hall monitors roamed the edges of this quad like predators, and the press of rules felt so heavy it was very easy to do something wrong. (I once had to clean the lunchroom because I slid my empty paper plate down the table into the trash can rather than picking it up and dumping it in.)
Something else new about junior high was the boys, and the way they started touching the girls as often as they possibly could. Despite strict rules about throwing away paper plates, ass-grabbing was so rampant it seemed condoned by the administration. It was, apparently, natural for boys to pinch girls on the butts — an extension of the games we played in grade school: “Boys chase the girls.” And for the most part, girls enjoyed this mild sexual gesture—although, of course, we were supposed to pretend we didn’t. From my perspective now, it seems nothing but degrading.
I remember standing by a locker one day and feeling a grab on my own bum. I turned, ready to be angry, when I saw that the offender was a handsome and popular boy named Carlos. My cheeks flushed at the sight of his smile and I felt a rush of flattered pride, the kind of worthless pride that lasts for only a moment then is gone. It was as if a prince had deigned to wave at a maid on his way through town.
One day in seventh grade, I was walking home from school with my friend Christy, a small Korean girl with a black braid that hung down to the middle of her calves. I was carrying my Yamaha flute in its hard, slim case in one hand, and a bag of books in the other. A boy rode up beside us on his bike. He was unfamiliar to me and I wasn’t sure if he went to our school. He looked older, with square, solid shoulders and the hint of a black mustache already skimming his upper lip. He rode one of those low-slung bikes with the big handlebars and wore a sky blue T-shirt. He trailed us on that ridiculous bike as we walked past small pastel ranch houses with scruffy lawns. It was warm outside, the yellow, glazed sunlight of fall something beautiful I took for granted.
I don’t think the boy on the bike spoke to us. He just rode slowly beside me. I felt his presence like a weight on my shoulder, as if he was already touching me, but I did not turn to look at him. There was no doubt in my mind that he was working up his nerve to do something unwelcome, but I had no idea what that thing might be. I remember those few minutes of waiting for the thing to happen almost more acutely than what he actually did. Christy Park and I had stopped talking completely. She was waiting too.
While remaining on his bike, that older boy managed to slide a hand between my legs from behind all the way up to the front snap of my lavender pants, then slide it down the zipper and across my crotch back through again. He did this twice, slowly like a caress, before I stopped, set down my bag of books, and turned to face him.
I was shaking with fear, worried I might begin to cry, but I found the strength to raise my flute case and hit that boy as hard as I could across the arm that had touched me. He rubbed his arm once, with a look of pure anger, then called me a “cunt,” and rode away.
Even after he was gone, Christy and I did not speak about the incident. In fact, I never told anyone what had happened, not even my parents. The next day, I looked for him in the halls at school. Worry hovered around me like a force field as I scanned the face of every boy I passed, but I didn’t find him. I never saw him again.
That moment with that boy could have acted as a turning point. It could have made me fearful of walking home from school (which it did, but only for a few days); it could have made me fearful of boys in general. But it didn’t. For some reason, I was able to keep the fear of that day separate from my desire to be touched in a loving way, by a different sort of boy.
The incident did make me trigger-happy. A week or two later on the school bus riding to a band event, I was hit in the back by a rubber band, a sharp sting right between my shoulder blades that struck me as a vicious attack. I turned without a thought and hit the offending boy on the hand with my flute case, once again as hard as I could manage. It hurt him—I could see it in his cringe and the way he cradled his injured hand to his chest as if he were a fox or a wolf who’d just retrieved his paw from a trap. “Why’d you do that?” he wanted to know. “It was an accident. I wasn’t trying to hit you.”
It was true. He’d been screwing around with some other boy, and I just happened to get caught in the crossfire. He was not intimidating. I don’t remember his name but I can still see his red hair and the constellation of freckles on his round face. We weren’t friends, but he was not a person I would ever hurt on purpose for no reason.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, then turned back to the window, watching as bare trees and strip malls whipped by outside. It struck me then how easy it was to become someone you didn’t want to be.
When I imagine John C. Fremont now, it’s from an aerial view. To the right of the school sits the turquoise city pool where I took diving lessons and swam for endless hours with my sister. To the left of the school sits the Episcopal church started by my grandfather before he was murdered by one of his parishioners, but that’s its own story. The church has Spanish architecture with a red tile roof and pale blue bell. A white fountain sits in the center of the courtyard, surrounded on all sides by planters filled with lush greenery: palm trees, hibiscus, oleanders. Inside that courtyard there is a cool hush, a cloistered security. The sounds of the school next door don’t penetrate its stucco walls. It’s strange to find such a sanctuary right beside a junior high school. My parents were married in that church, and, many years later, I was married there too.
Madison, Wisconsin, where we lived when my son and daughter were young, is a city so different from my hometown it may as well been on another planet. I often wondered if living in a place like Madison would make any real difference in my kids’ upbringing. Unlike Vegas, Madison is not a city of inconsistencies. It is a city of green lawns adorned by peace signs, babies held snugly to their mothers’ chests in earth-toned slings, roadside stands overflowing with organic produce and bikers hauling their small children in bright, enclosed trailers down paths lined by community gardens and coffee shops. It is an idyllic place, filled, for the most part, with seemingly well-intentioned people. Still, I suspect that none of these things really matter. Mean kids crop up all across the country.
One day, my son came home from his easygoing, hippie preschool and, after following my husband around quietly for several hours, asked, “Dad, when you were younger, how did you handle boys?”
I thought my husband had a good answer for him: If a boy is bothering you or trying to hurt you, he told his son, it’s important to look him in the eyes and say firmly and loudly, “Don’t mess with me.” I liked this advice—the way it didn’t counsel him to hit back, but still emphasized strength and confidence. They practiced saying it several times until both of them, I think, felt better.
Someday soon, my daughter, now thirteen, will likely have a similar question for me about how to handle boys. When I asked her if boys grab girls’ butts at school, she said, slightly horrified, “What do you mean?” She wanted to know what kind of crazy school I attended. The idea was completely absurd in her world, and that made me grateful.
Still, I want her to be prepared for her version of the boy on the bicycle. That day on the sidewalk, I managed to push through my paralyzing fear and act. I wish I could figure out where that surge of strength came from so I can teach it to my daughter.
As a mother, I’ve come to understand the allure of violence. It becomes second nature to imagine doing terrible things to the people who would dare to hurt your children. Preaching kindness and forgiveness was a lot easier before giving birth.
But it’s not enough for me to be a ruthless protector. How will my daughter learn to handle boys—good and bad—on her own? Can I give her my old flute case, or a can of pepper spray, and encourage her to use them? More importantly, how will I fill her up with pride—the kind of solid pride that matters, the kind that will save her?