I felt the foot as it thrust between my legs and rammed over and over and over again into my crotch. I was lying on my back in the dirt. Strands of my long hair pulled from their roots under the weight of my body as my torso was forced forward. My head was tethered. My neck bent back nearly to its limit.
I felt the shoe. No one had touched me there before.
There wasn’t just one. They took turns. Chuck Taylors, Hush Puppies, Wallabies. The Waffle Stompers were the worst. They hurt.
It all hurt. Did no one hear me screaming? Was that even possible? There was a parade of people walking by. There were people all around.
I cried for help. My voice was my only defense as they held my arms and penetrated my dignity. Their grubby hands were on my breasts. They squeezed, and grabbed, and pinched, and wrung the newly mounded flesh.
They tore the pink bow off the center of my first bra. A metaphoric deflowering.
It happened every day that spring. Every day after lunch they chased me down the hall to the exit door that led to an uphill path to the playground. When we got outside they grabbed my arms and pulled and groped. My resistance was no match for their single-mindedness. They jerked me to the ground for their ease and to let the hill give them cover. Eventually, they dragged me to a more concealed spot behind the building. Still, the cover was not absolute.
Every day more than 200 school children followed the same route down the hall from the cafeteria, out the door, and up the hill to the playground. At least some of them must have seen something – or heard – or told their parents.
There were adults – teachers and parents on lunch duty. There were visitors. Someone had to have seen me struggling. They had to have heard me screaming even above the cacophony of 200 children playing.
Distress makes a different sound.
It is not possible to ignore cries for help. You notice and then choose how you will react. You look up. You look in the direction of the noise. You decide.
There were dozens of witnesses to my molestation. There were dozens of people who saw or heard a gang-perpetrated serial sexual assault. They decided to look away.
I was 12. The gang were my classmates – catholic school boys. We were 7th graders. We lived in Portland, Oregon in 1972.
Like the boys who sought cover behind the school building, these acts hid in the shadows of my memory until last spring when I was invited to an event that could have brought me face-to-face with some of my former classmates, and with some of my attackers. The invitation was like a spotlight that cast its beam on the unwitting secret and called it out.
At first the memories were obscured by the glare of immediacy, but now, having sat with them – having sat with the 12-year-old me – the experiences are present, and I am communicating with them.
I don’t remember exactly how it affected me then. I know it was ubiquitous, but I don’t remember nightmares or fear. I don’t remember anger or self-pity or hatred. I recall incredulity. It was much the same as that which I feel now.
My friend and I had attempted to escape the ritual by taking an alternative route from the cafeteria. We walked up the main staircase and tried to exit the building through the front door. We were met by a nun who turned us around. I remember trying to tell her what was happening. I remember my friend trying. I know that I got out the words, “they’re attacking me,” but she wouldn’t hear. She pointed us back down the stairs, back to the long hallway, back to the torture.
Eventually we fled the madness by volunteering to wash tables in the cafeteria after lunch. It gave us a reason to stay in. Even now, I can smell the stale water we carried with us in a gallon-sized pail. I can see 16 tan-colored tables set against the concrete floor. I can feel my knee pressing into the bench and the side of the table hitting my hips as I bent to reach across it with the smelly rag.