Speak Up


Illustration by Amy Marcopulos

I refuse to be one of the silent girls from my school. I will not bite my tongue.

In seventh grade, I was sexually assaulted by one of my teachers, and living through that experience has changed me forever.  

The day I realized the extent of what had happened to me was inarguably the worst day of my life. Our school’s band teacher had disappeared unannounced weeks before, and my class had been jumping from substitute to substitute with no explanation of what had happened—until one fateful moment when the truth came out.

Early in the morning at school, one of my unassuming classmates whispered a rumor into my ear, and from the second the words registered in my brain I knew it had to be true. What had previously been a muted memory resurfaced in my mind, the reality of what had happened taking shape for the first time.

Confusion and shock flooded my mind. I remembered the day he grabbed me, months before. I had thought nothing of it because it didn’t make any sense. I remembered seeing him come up behind another girl, the same way he did with me, and suppressing my suspicion, passing it off, because how could anyone like a teacher, a trustworthy, responsible adult, do something so obviously wrong?

Suddenly he wasn’t innocent anymore. Suddenly his actions had a meaning, one that I wished they did not. I wanted the problem to go away, to return to the time-faded memory where it came from and stay there. But I knew that I had to do something to make sure that he never came back again.

The next day I found myself in the main office, trembling, while my counselor motioned to the volleyball in my hands and told me to show her where he had touched me. She told me I looked shaken up, but how could I not? My life had been turned upside down in the span of a day, and now I was telling her things that could both get someone fired and potentially put me in danger.

Power dynamics are terrifying, especially when the person you’re up against is bigger, stronger and older than you. As the situation progressed, as legal documents were signed, as social workers were called in, I began to feel real fear for the first time. What if he came back to school and punished me for speaking up? What if nobody believed me? These questions still haunt me when I try to sleep at night, and sometimes I see him in my dreams. I scream at him, “How could you do this to me?” But he just stares in response. Sometimes he even smiles.

In the vision I see, victims will no longer be shamed or ignored, and teachers, coworkers and peers will learn to respect boundaries.

Though the memories hang over my head every day, they aren’t even the worst consequences of this whole ordeal. The most infuriating part is that I wasn’t the only one. It seems like every time I bring him up, more girls come forward and tell me that they heard the rumors too but were afraid to speak up. Each new person I find magnifies my horror, and the known casualties accumulate as the months go on. I am shocked that this one man, this one despicable human being, has made so many of my friends second guess each male teacher with whom they cross paths, made them lose their trust in the people they love, made them afraid. One man caused so much pain.

The girl who I had seen him harass denied it to our counselor and her parents because she was afraid of the repercussions of telling the truth. When they finally convinced her to be honest, she told them that it had happened once. She later admitted to me that he had grabbed her seven times.

Then, in Washington D.C. on a school trip, my roommate started talking. Somehow the teacher came up in our conversation, and after hearing from me, she realized that she hadn’t been the only one he assaulted. She thought he had targeted her because she was a bad student. She thought it was her fault.

Some people who don’t know the truth joke about our teacher and think it’s funny. Some of my friends from middle school joke about act like it’s all lies, like the teacher they knew could never have done such a thing. When I tell them it was all real, profuse apologies follow. They hadn’t thought what they were saying meant anything to me, when in fact it meant everything.

There are victims of sexual harassment everywhere, and so many abusers whose secrets stay safe. The teacher escaped unscathed and moved back to Saipan with his girlfriend. He faced no consequences for the suffering he left in his wake.

Though my teacher may never face justice, I hope that other perpetrators of this crime will get the punishment they deserve. I hope that as time moves forward and more people find the courage to address sexual assault, society’s view of this crime will change. In the vision I see, victims will no longer be shamed or ignored, and teachers, coworkers and peers will learn to respect boundaries. Other people won’t have to go through what I experienced.

To people who have been sexually assaulted: your voice has the power to bring about this change. I am so thankful that I had my family and friends to support me going through the reporting process, encouraging me to speak up, because otherwise I may have stayed silent forever. If I hadn’t accused the teacher, he might have stayed at the school and assaulted more girls, and that’s a possibility I can’t bear to think about. I can’t go back and change what happened to me, but in that moment I made the best decision I could have to help save other girls. For that I am proud.

Even if you have no exposure to this problem whatsoever, please recognize that there are others who are directly affected by the issue. Do your best to be empathetic with victims, because it’s a very difficult and painful topic to talk about. Believing and protecting victims is a big step towards creating a society that actively works to prevent sexual assault. If you see or hear about sexual assault, report it, and if you think somebody is a victim, please reach out to them; you never know what your actions can do to help someone in need.