When Telling Isn’t Enough
The school social worker’s message was cryptic: a brief voicemail, urging me to come to my daughter’s school as soon as possible. Her voice was direct, rather than urgent, but it held something else—concern, or maybe blame? After three kids and six years of public school, calls from the nurse’s office were nothing new; I’d been contacted about headaches, playground wounds, projectile vomiting—even gotten the dreaded lice call. But I’d never been summoned by the school social worker.
As I rang the school buzzer, I mentally catalogued my six-year-old daughter’s social profile. Daphne was prone to anxiety, and sometimes her worries got the better of her. Getting in trouble was one of her worst fears.
“If I don’t go to sleep early,” she’d say, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling, way past bedtime, “I’ll be tired tomorrow. And if I’m tired, I might not be able to pay attention, and if the teacher calls on me, I’ll get in trouble.”
Of course, Daphne’s teacher had reassured us with a chuckle, getting in trouble was not something any of us needed to worry about; our daughter was a model kindergartener. Still, when Daphne did become overly anxious, the school’s kind-hearted principal would invite her into the office for a friendly chat or read-aloud. My daughter associated the principal’s office with warmth and safety—not with trouble. Yet here I was, ducking into a cavernous office in the bowels of the school, trying not to betray my worry that my daughter had done something terribly wrong.
“Thanks for coming in,” Ms. Carson said. “Please sit down.” I squeezed into the toddler-size chair and braced myself. “There was an incident on the playground today,” she said, without a hint of humor. I felt my throat tighten. “Daphne was playing with a group of boys, and one of them kissed her.”
Still feeling under scrutiny, I wondered why I had been summoned. Had Daphne been a willing participant in this playground incident, or worse—had she been the instigator? I knew that Daphne preferred the company of boys to girls—she had two older brothers, after all. Had she chased one down and tried to kiss him, as I had done in first grade (and been sent to the principal’s office for)? The memory tickled the corners of my mouth into the beginnings of a smile, but my reaction did not match the social worker’s no-nonsense demeanor.
“She asked the boy to stop, but then three other boys joined in. They cornered her and kept trying to kiss her.” My smile vanished. The image of my daughter backed into the corner of the chain link fence, four rambunctious boys pawing at her, made me suddenly nauseous.
Ms. Carson explained that Mrs. Z., the principal, had seen the huddled mass from across the playground and swooped in to break it up. Daphne had appeared quite shaken. Mrs. Z talked to the boys and called their parents right away away. The boys had all apologized to Daphne and written letters assuring her they would never do that again.
“We wanted to let you know as soon as possible,” she explained, “so you could help Daphne work through this at home.”
I thanked the social worker for taking the situation so seriously and for dealing with it promptly. The school had a system in place, and the system had worked. I was impressed and grateful.
Ms. Carson walked me outside, where I waited for my daughter to spill out of the double doors with hundreds of other little bobbing heads. After a hug and a kiss and a few questions about art and gym, I casually asked Daphne about recess. Hearing the unexpected fear in her voice as she detailed the kissing incident made me disgusted with myself for ever wondering if she had been the instigator.
Later that night, my daughter told me that when the principal had intervened on the playground, Daphne had felt like she was the one in trouble. I knew the principal well and trusted her completely. Mrs. Z would not have intentionally cast any censure upon my daughter in that situation. And yet, my daughter still felt blamed.
Why, I’ve wondered since then, was guilt Daphne’s first instinct that day? It wasn’t because she was guilty, I’ve realized. It was because my daughter, like so many girls, shrinks from unwanted attention, whether the stern voice of a teacher, or the rebound blow from telling on another kid. I didn’t need to look far—in history or in the news—to understand the link between Daphne’s generalized fear of getting into trouble and her uneasiness about telling on those boys. I could imagine her thoughts on the playground that day, as she faced the principal. What if she doesn’t believe me? What if the boys make my life miserable for telling on them? Is it worth it?
Too many women have had to ask themselves that same question. Is coming forward worth the lost job, the fractured relationships, the compounded emotional trauma? I didn’t want Daphne to be one of them, not ever. Speaking out is a mandate, I would tell her, the only way to be heard.
And yet, three years after that playground incident, my daughter again found herself asking is it worth it? Just as the Kavanaugh hearings were plunging the nation into a very public and poignant moment in the #MeToo movement, my daughter came home from a new school with disturbing news. One of the boys in her third-grade class, Mitchell, had been “spanking” her.
“What? Did you tell him to stop? Did you tell a teacher?” I fired back, trying to reign in the alarm in my voice.
Daphne had asked the boy to stop, she said, and then told a teacher. Mitchell had been admonished. Case closed, she insisted. I wanted to go spank the boy myself, but recognized that the proper steps had been taken. I would not intervene.
A couple of days later, it happened again. This time, Daphne told me, the boy used explicit sound effects: “Oooh, your butt is so cushy, mmmm,” he had whispered while spanking her. “Boobies, boobies, boobies!” he sang next. “You have little ones!”
My heart sank as I felt all the delicate progress I had made with my daughter in recent months being smashed to bits. Finally, Daphne felt okay about her changing body, accepting that being an early bloomer wasn’t the end of the world, that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t too noticeable. And now Mitchell, with his sexualized murmurings and groping fingers, had made it painfully clear to my daughter that her developing body was not only noticeable, but a beacon for the worst kind of unwanted attention. I wanted to scream.
Daphne looked up at me with pleading eyes: “Please don’t tell the teacher. I don’t want to get him in trouble.”
I stared at her, incredulous. “Daphne—we have to tell. This is not okay! Mitchell has to learn that it’s not okay to touch you, or anyone else, like that, or to make comments about your body. There is no choice. We have to talk to the teacher.”
“But he’ll be mean to me if I get him in trouble,” she said.
The innocent desperation of her words stung. In her blunt, third grade language, Daphne had expressed the sentiments of every woman who has hesitated to come forward. Although I hadn’t shared the story with her, it was as if she knew that Christine Blasey Ford had been violently ejected from her home, subjected to ridicule and death threats for “telling on” her own assailant. Part of me wanted to explain everything to Daphne right then, to tell her that we have to speak up, all of us! But she is a child, and she doesn’t need to feel the weight of womanhood, not yet.
She doesn’t need to know yet that this can happen to anyone—even to grown-ups, like me. I’m not ready to tell her about the Italian man who groped me as I jogged along the Arno River at twenty-four, or about her aunt, who at sixteen narrowly escaped from a pack of drunken boys on a California beach in broad daylight. I wanted Daphne to know that women can only affect change when we speak out together, and let our voices be heard. But that lesson would have to wait. First, I needed her to understand the importance of standing up for herself.
“You have a right not to be touched or bullied. And Mitchell needs to know that,” I told her firmly.
Later that afternoon I carefully composed a diplomatic email to Daphne’s teacher, describing the situation. An hour later, my phone rang. But the conversation with this teacher was nothing like my long-ago chat with the social worker.
“So, it’s a tough call, isn’t it?” she asked, rhetorically. “Trying to find the right balance between making our kids safe and letting them figure out how the world works.”
I tried to comprehend what this strong-willed, progressive woman was saying. Was an adult, admired and trusted by my daughter, actually suggesting that Mitchell’s behavior was just “part of how the world works”? Worse, was she implying that I could have—or should have—let my daughter “figure it out” on her own? I couldn’t find the words to respond.
“Looking at Mitchell’s file from last year,” she went on, “it appears that this behavior is not uncommon for him. Unfortunately, it seems this is just how he is.”
I wanted to fling my frustration back in her face. “Well, it sounds like the school has had plenty of opportunities to teach this boy that such behavior is not okay!” I wanted to say. “Why haven’t you done that?” But my words couldn’t catch up to my racing pulse. Caught off guard, I struggled to regain my balance.
Then came the zinger: “Look,” the teacher said, “it’s not like this was a middle-school boy smacking her butt or something. Mitchell’s only seven . . .” Her voice trailed off, but I heard her silent judgment: This was an overzealous, but harmless, show of affection. Let’s not overreact.
My words finally found me. “Well, my daughter is almost nine,” I said, more loudly than I intended, my voice quavering in newfound resolve, “and she has the body of an eleven-year-old, a fact that she is painfully aware of. This boy made sounds and touched her in a way that felt different from an overdone friendly pat. I am not going to tell her she should be okay with that.”
The force of my words hung in the air and filled the silence with an unspoken plea. Hear me. Do something, please.
“Well, what would you like to do?” the teacher offered, perhaps wanting to appease me. “Would you like to bring Mitchell’s parents in, and we can all sit down together?”
“What would I like to do?” I thought, exasperated. Was it up to me to decide the consequence of this boy’s actions? Didn’t the school have a protocol for this? I’d assumed that after informing the teacher, the principal would talk to Mitchell, maybe call his parents. Instead, the teacher was shifting the responsibility to me.
Would I confront those parents and label their son, foisting more unwanted attention upon my daughter, and myself? Or would I be merciful, like Caesar presiding over a gladiator fight, and give the thumbs up to Mitchell? The weight of my unwanted power felt paralyzing. I hadn’t asked for the authority to make this decision, and I sure as hell didn’t want it.
What would I like to do? I’d like the people in charge to make sure this never happens again, I thought. But since I was apparently in charge, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and tried to imagine what healing would look like.
Would healing come from a public intervention? I shuddered as I tried to imagine facing Mitchell’s parents without the support of the school. From their reputation, I knew his parents would be defensive. What if they got nasty? What if they accused my daughter of lying? What if Mitchell decided to give my daughter hell for getting him in trouble?
And then I asked myself the question my daughter must have pondered before telling me what Mitchell did—the question generations of women have asked themselves: Is it worth it?
I struggled to shrug off the centuries-old pressure to “make nice” and focus on finding a solution, but my ideas surfaced slowly, heavily, as if swimming towards me through miles of dense ocean water. All I wanted was for Mitchell to stop harassing my daughter. The most logical pathway to changing his behavior, I decided, would start with a conversation between the boy and his teacher. But if that didn’t work—I told the teacher in a flash of lucidity—you’d better believe I wanted the parents involved.
I hung up the phone and slumped against my bedroom door, exhausted. We’d come to an acceptable solution, but I had the nagging feeling that things hadn’t gone quite right. If someone had overheard our conversation, I wondered, would they have misinterpreted my restraint as lack of belief in my daughter? Would they have seen my decision not to confront the boy’s parents as an admission of his innocence? Had I made the right decision? Or just the easy one?
I will never know the answer. The teacher’s intervention worked. Mitchell has stopped spanking Daphne, and he no longer whispers about her body. But my daughter was right about him, in the end. Mitchell is punishing her for telling. He walks away when she approaches him. He ignores her when she tries to speak to him, acts as if she is invisible. Last week he “accidentally” pushed her off the play set, giving her a bloody lip. Mitchell is mad at her, mean to her. He is bullying her. She knows it and he knows it. But it is subtle—perhaps too subtle—to tell a teacher.
I ache for her, but still, I remind Daphne that her voice did its job. Mitchell may be angry, but he is not touching her or talking about her body anymore. Speaking up was not easy, but it was worth it.
But speaking up, I’ve realized, is not always enough, not when words alone wield no power. Without a school policy to address harassment, Daphne and I were left unprotected and unsupported when we did speak up, a failure that has shaken me almost as much as the incident itself. But it has also shaken me awake. It has called me to act, so the next student or family who comes forward isn’t forced to play Caesar, the way we were.
The conversation with the school principal will not be easy. I imagine the sick feeling in my stomach as I step into her light-filled office and sit opposite her, straining to return her casual greeting and bright smile, despite the dread brewing in my chest. Will she leave the door open, as she always does, forcing me to wonder who might overhear our conversation? What’s going on? she’ll ask after a bit of small talk, with genuine concern. While I gather the strength to answer, I’ll watch the kids frolicking on the playground outside the office window, their lightness a painful contrast to my own burden. And if I glimpse my daughter among them, will she be running free, blond hair streaming behind her, or will she be standing apart from the others, watchful and wary? As I unravel my words, the principal’s smile will fade, replaced by alarm, perhaps, or disbelief, or defensiveness. And then the flood of my adrenaline, as I tell her the school failed my daughter, failed me, that something must change. But even if my voice quavers, I will meet her eyes and I will speak up. After all, how can I expect my daughter to use her voice, if I’m not willing to use my own?
2 replies on “When Telling Isn’t Enough”
Thank you for writing this. I have walked this path with my own daughters, too, with varying support and understanding from teachers, school admin, and even parents. And you are so right: How can we expect our daughters to use their voices if we aren’t willing to use our own?
Thanks so much for your comment. I’m glad my piece resonated with you, and I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had similar experiences with your own daughters. Learning to use my voice hasn’t been easy, but writing this essay helped me to find it.