In real time, it probably lasted for less than a minute. I was nine years old, and in third grade. As I did every day, I was walking to school with a friend. I remember it was sunny and warm and I was wearing my favorite green shorts. School was, at most, half a mile from my house, via the neighborhood green belt. The entire walk to school, before we got to school property, was within view of my house, except for about a 50 foot stretch. There were usually parents and other children around, but at that moment the planets aligned and somehow, it was just my friend and me.
The school was almost in sight when he came into view. At first we noticed him because he was wearing a bright orange jogging outfit. As he got closer, we realized that his penis was out and he was touching it. At nine years old, we had no idea what he was doing, except that we knew it was wrong. And weird. I vaguely remember giggling at the uncomfortable situation. He walked toward us and we silently tried to figure out what to do. We were too close to have many options, so we simply tried to skirt around him as he passed.
Our plan didn’t work, and as he walked by he reached out and grabbed me, rather forcefully, between my legs. I can honestly say that it was the very last thing that my naive 9 year old mind had expected to happen. I don’t remember if we screamed or even made any commotion at all. I do know that we started running to school, and he started running in the opposite direction. The details of the rest of the day are fuzzy. I remember talking to my teacher and explaining what had happened. I remember meeting with police detectives and looking at pages and pages of scary photographs of men.
Too many photographs. The adult in me shudders at the thought of the, what must have been, hundred or so men that were on the police records as possible child molesters. I didn’t recognize any of them and, as far as I know, they never caught the guy. I never wore those green shorts again and, according to my mother, I refused to eat hot dogs for a while after that.
My story is benign in relation to what other people have gone through. It was a one time incident that was over in the blink of an eye. I was lucky and hadn’t suffered any physical harm. The emotional and psychological toll was a bit different, though. I don’t remember any specific anxiety issues, although there must have been some because I do remember being given a glass of warm milk and honey at night before bed for a while (a week? two weeks? a month?) afterward in an attempt to relax me and get me to sleep. For years I would cross the street if an older man was walking towards me on the sidewalk. In college I threw myself wholeheartedly into sexual assault education and prevention programs and spent a little over a year as a Rape Crisis Advocate for the local Rape Crisis Center.
I started to feel like I had a handle on the situation.
And then I became a parent. And as my kids get older, I find myself thinking back to that day and setting boundaries for them based on my experience. While I could certainly trust my seven year old to play at the playground without getting into trouble, he’s not generally allowed to go out of my line of sight. And if he does, I’m a nervous wreck the entire time. I’m not worried that he’s going to talk to strangers or voluntarily get into a car with someone, I’m worried that a normal looking sexual predator is on the other side of the trees waiting for the perfect, quick, opportunity.
When we’re at the ball park, I watch men, suspicious in my own mind but no one else’s, with extra care. Are they there because they have a relative playing, they simply love baseball, or are they there for a sinister purpose? Yesterday, while downtown with two of my boys, an older gentleman was walking towards us. We were in a little courtyard, the busy main street was behind us. I didn’t think too much about it until he abruptly stopped and turned around. And then he looked down and started fiddling with his pants. I slowed down a bit and started running through possibilities in my head. If he turns around with his penis out, what am I going to do? Do I scream? Grab my kids and run in the other direction? Kick him as hard as I can in the groin and then continue to kick him as hard as I can until police arrive and restrain me?
My mind was moving at a thousand miles a minute while my 4 year old skipped along beside me. And then the old man turned around and…had apparently simply been fixing his belt. I let out a sigh of relief, smiled at him as he passed, and continued on my way. It was a moment that would have gone completely unnoticed by 99% of the population, but it left me thinking about how my brain works, even 24 years later.
I don’t know when I’ll be comfortable letting my kids walk or bike to school on their own, or head to the park after school to play baseball with their friends. I approach certain situations differently than other mothers I know, simply because I view those situations through a different filter. I’m quick to tell my kids no when they want a little more room on their “leash,” even if it’s probably a perfectly safe situation. Sometimes I think my mom friends think I’m completely insane. I know that they’re worried about the same things I am, but having been through a horrible situation first hand, I come at these things with a different point of view.
And while I feel bad for keeping my kids on a short leash, the old saying “better safe than sorry” is something that I have taken to heart. They’re certainly allowed to be kids and have fun, but at the same time, the overly suspicious and nervous side of me needs, and deserves, to be acknowledged. I have my reasons, and without denying my kids a happy childhood by locking them in the house and never letting them outside, I’m going to do what I can to keep them safe.
But hopefully I won’t make a spectacle of myself in a public setting one day.
*An update to this post can be found here*
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Photo Credit: Victor Bezrukov via Flickr