The head of the school (my boss), the HR lady, and I sit across from him at the large brown table in the freezing board room. The lawyer continues, “And I’m here if you have any questions at all. Do you have any questions for me right now?”
I stare at this vague memo he had handed me to read, the one with phrases like, “the school has taken appropriate action to address the sustained finding” and “I cannot share the nature of those actions” and “I am also directing you not to retaliate.” I wish I could think of the perfect question, but the only real question I have is, “How does that man still have a job here?”
I’ve already asked that one. I asked my boss. I asked HR, and the lawyer already explained why before I could even ask - because he has “rights as an employee.” Translation: because they’re afraid he’s gonna sue.
That’s the point of this meeting - to tell me that because of the employment laws in place in the State of California, they certainly understand why I would feel angry or uncomfortable, but it’s not their fault. Their hands are tied.
I have one of those work daydreams, you know like the main dude in the show Scrubs, where I jump up, point at the lawyer, and shout, “This is bullshit! And please for the love of all things holy, tell your head to share some blood with the rest of your body!”
In real life, I say, “Do I have to talk to him?”
“No,” my boss says.
I work as an executive assistant in the head’s office of an independent school (California code for “private school”). When people ask me the best part about my job, I say, “The kids.” I don’t mean in a professional athlete press conference sort of way. I just mean that hands down, the best part about working in a school office has always been being a witness to whatever a child says on the fly.
Like Mike, the 8th grader who had to sit in what I deemed “the bad kid chair” next to my desk at least twice a week. One day, I told him to guess how old I was, and he didn’t hesitate before he said, “40.” I was 32 at the time. I said, “No, that’s too high.” And he said, “Leah, quit lying to yourself.”
Or Stan, the 8th grader who had to sit in that same chair very early one morning before school even started for punching another student. Our dean came in and gave him a good talking to, and he casually raised his hand up, cutting her off like a miniature Alec Baldwin in 30 Rock, and said, “Excuse me, can I stop you right there? I hear what you’re saying, but I also feel like I’m getting the short end of the stick.” Not gonna lie, I really enjoyed watching that dean swallow anger while she tried to calmly explain why he can’t punch a dude.
Or my favorites, the middle school girls who swarm my desk in the mornings during basketball season asking me if I think we’ll win our next game, entangling every paper clip on my desk in a long chain, and writing messages on post-its like “Macy is awesome” and sticking them all over my computer.
A lot of these girls remind me of myself when I was young - they’re athletic and excitable and a little bit sassy without even really meaning to be. I want them to be kids for as long as they can be. I want to protect them from all the dumb parts of the world that they don’t even know exist.
I’m in 8th grade waiting by Coach C’s desk to ask him how to solve an algebra problem. Had I been listening at all, I could’ve figured out the problem myself, but I’d been staring out the window during his lecture. Sometimes I literally stand up while he’s teaching, walk to the back of the classroom, and gaze out the window. I don’t know why he lets me do it. Probably just doesn’t want to deal with me anymore.
I don’t have an excuse for my behavior other than to say that I’m 13, and this is the year I choose to act out against authority figures (as it turns out, that impulse never goes away).
I don’t respect Coach C, mainly because of the rumors. He teaches algebra, but he also coaches middle school basketball, and several of the girls on my team have whispered about how he touched their thigh every now and then, put a hand on their lower backs, rubbed their shoulders in a way that felt weird. It hasn’t happened to me yet.
Maybe it’s just a rumor. There’s also another rumor about him, a weirder one - that he has a monkey puppet in his desk drawer and he cut a hole in the back to “do things to it.” I don’t even really know what that means, but I pretend I do.
Anyway, I’m standing by the balding, blond mustached, beer-gutted Coach C, who’s seated in his desk chair, his short-sleeve buttoned down shirt one size too small (that shirt, I think, is doing the hardest job in the school by staying buttoned), and I’m asking him to explain an easy algebra concept when he reaches over and runs his fat pointer finger down my left thigh.
I step away. “Why did you just do that?”
“B-b-b-because,” he stammers, “I wanted to see if you’d think it was my pencil.”
“What?” I ask. “That doesn’t even make sense.”
He’s agitated and - could it be? - embarrassed. He tells me to sit back down.
Later that semester, I see the monkey puppet tucked away in the bottom drawer of his cabinet. I don’t know what that means, but I know it exists.
It’s August of my 6th year working in administration. School’s starting soon, so some of the faculty are back, and the halls buzz with small pockets of activity. I’m determined to start off this year on a more positive note due to a bunch of new hires who seem so bright-eyed, I don’t want them to lose their minds until at least November, so I’m making an effort to be more welcoming. After all, I’ve been a blunt-ass bitch for five straight years. Time for a change.
To help boost morale, the boss gave me the okay to start a work softball team. One of our new hires, an assistant teacher, an older man, probably mid-60s, does screen printing as a side business, so when I see him in the copy room, I pop in. “Hey,” I say, “would you be able to print shirts for our softball team?”
“Yes,” he says. Or maybe he says something else. Maybe he says, “Of course,” or, “I’d be happy to.” It’s such a mundane work conversation, I wish I could forget it.
But I can’t. Because as this dude answers me, he reaches up and caresses my face, his open palm sliding down my left cheek right there next to the copier.
Don’t gloss over that last paragraph. Read it again. Put yourself in that situation. You’re at work, the place you’ve worked for 6 years, the place you have to show up to get paid to survive in Los Angeles. You stop in and have a 30-second conversation with one of your coworkers. It’s the longest conversation you’ve ever had with this coworker because you don’t know this person. And then he reaches up with his chubby little troll hand and caresses your face. Then think about how many people in your everyday life you allow to touch your face. Then think about how you’re standing next to a copy machine and a bunch of human resource posters about labor laws in California.
When I tell this story to my friends in the weeks to come, I will always mention that it’s next to a copier. I’m not sure why I hone in on this detail other than I have a prejudice about the types of things that people can do next to copy machines. At copy machines, we stare while the machine churns out sheet after sheet, and our coworkers pop in and say things like, “Happy Friday!”
But who knows? Maybe this guy’s copy machine is from a movie in the 80s, and it’s a work Christmas party, and a drunk lady is making a copy of her ass.
In real time, I’m shocked speechless. I just back out, my mouth agape, and walk to my desk wondering why I didn’t deck the prick.
I think about it over the weekend. I think about how many women have suffered so many worse things than a man caressing their face. I mean, he didn’t grab my ass or cup my breast or say anything overtly sexual (all, by the way, things that strange men actually have done to me and to every other woman you know). I myself have suffered much worse things from men in general, including rape, but this is the worst thing that’s happened to me in a professional office environment, a place I’d considered safe. And I keep coming back around to the same question - how creepy of a person do you have to be to reach out, cocksure that nothing could possibly happen, and put your hand on a stranger’s face at work?
That’s not an amateur move. Naw, that’s pro.
I work with about 80% women, so I ask a few of my female coworkers if that dude ever has touched them.
“Oh my god, yes!” they say.
Two of them tell me about their uncomfortable encounters with him. I’m not gonna tell their stories - they aren’t my stories to tell - but they’re stories about a man who thinks he can touch women whenever he wants, regardless of how uncomfortable the women feel. They’re stories about a man who knows the exact amount of touching he can do and get away with it.
The next morning, I report him to HR. A week later, another female coworker confides in me about a different incident. I encourage her to report him, and she does even though she’s embarrassed. Then the two other women I spoke with report him. And then a couple more people that I didn’t even know about report him - they tell me later out of solidarity. In the end, we’re three weeks into the school year, and six different employees at my school have filed a complaint about this man touching them or someone else in a way that made them feel uncomfortable. This man who teaches children, 7th graders, the very same 7th graders that flock around my desk in the mornings.
I arrive at work the following Monday morning after I filed my complaint, and the first thing I see when I walk up the long staircase to my office is my boss at the top of the stairs, talking and laughing with the dude that touched me.
I wait until my boss finishes greeting all the students, and then I follow him into his office and say, “Can I talk to you?”
“Of course,” he says. He shuts the door behind me. I plop down on his couch, and he sits in a chair facing me.
I get right to it. “Why is that man still here?”
I tell him that the first thing I saw when I came in was him on the stairs, laughing with that man, and that it made me feel pretty unimportant. I tell him that I know that dude is bad. I ask him, “Who’s gonna be responsible if he touches a 7th grader? Who’s gonna take responsibility if he does it again?”
My boss, he has no answers.
I almost didn’t write this story.
I told myself that I reported the man, that I confronted my boss from every angle, that I did everything right, the way I’m supposed to do things as an adult in a professional environment. I said all the things I needed to stay. But why do I still feel so gross?
Maybe because I’m great at my job, and I’ve sacrificed a lot of things for it. To my boss, I’m pretty irreplaceable, and the man who touched me is an assistant teacher, which is a position with a high turnover rate. We hire several new assistant teachers every year. For the day-to-day running of the school, I’m 20 times more important. So while I see all these horrific stories in the news of men using professional power to try and dominate women, it must be true that even men without power think they can touch us just because they’re men, and we’re women. That being a man in itself gives you that right.
This happened in late August/early September, just before the Weinstein story broke nationally, before all the stories, before the terrible hidden truth came tumbling out from entertainment, from politics, from government, from everything, and out of respect for those victims, I refrained from writing about it because I didn’t want it to seem like I’m trying to jump on some train and make my story like theirs. I know it’s not the same level of thing that all these women are dealing with - of course it’s not - but the amount such a small moment has affected me has only made me more empathetic and in awe of the women who had the courage to come out on a national scope and talk about such awful things that they’ve endured.
I wrote this story because I have to do something to appease my rage - rage toward this man, toward the “law” that allows him to remain in a classroom, and toward myself. Because when I was a kid in 8th grade, and Coach C ran a finger up my leg, I knew in my gut that it was wrong, and I said something right then and there. But now I’m 35, and I pride myself on calling people out on their bullshit, and when that dude touched me, I said nothing. Nothing. I robbed myself of seeing the look on his dumb face when I said, “Just what the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
Is it better to be an 8th grader, saying every thought that crosses my mind but not telling anyone? Or is it better to be a 35-year-old too stunned to speak who later reports the incident? I don’t know the answer, but why do I have to know the answer? The real problem is that we live in a world where adult women and middle school girls question their own responses to being touched - Is it an overreaction? An underreaction? The correct reaction? - instead of a world when men don’t touch us whenever they feel like it.
I used to love my job, but it’s tainted now because every single day that I walk into work, I have to see that man parking in the space next to me, haunting all the hallways, or the worst, standing with a group of my girls. I am full of torrential rage, and it doesn’t subside as time goes by. It feeds on itself. It grows.
Compared to the horrors we’ve heard, this is just a tiny sexual harassment story, but my rage is immense, mixed in with all other rage from hearing all the other awful stories - it’s that feeling in the pit of every woman’s stomach of built up injustices just waiting to get loose. What if we could figure out a way to put all our quiet rage together? What if we could harness all that energy? What could we change if we could release it all at the same time?
Alex Cardenas. That’s the name of the man who caressed my face . I’ve either not named or changed everyone else’s name in this story to keep their lives private, but Alex Cardenas obviously doesn’t see any boundaries between us, so neither do I.
Another regular Monday morning. I check my email like I do every morning, and I notice I got an email from the lawyer over the weekend. “Thanks for meeting with us yesterday,” he writes. “I thought of you when I saw the attached this morning.”
“The attached” is this cartoon:
But I don’t think it’s funny at all. I think it’s a fucking joke.