That's me in the second row, third from the right.
The other day, author Roxane Gay sent out a tweet asking women for stories about their experiences with rape culture. By the time I saw the link, she had already received enough submissions. Because that's how prevalent rape culture is and who wouldn't want to write for Roxane Gay read?!
Before I even clicked the link in the tweet, I knew what I wanted to write about. My first experience with rape culture, in second grade.
Now mind you, if there were terms to describe what I was experienced at the time, I didn't know any of them. And wouldn't learn them until decades later, when I was an adult.
I just knew, even as an eight year old, that what happened to me was wrong.
Now, to be clear I wasn't raped or physically assaulted in any way. I was the target of my classmates' disgusting joke.
Ron Turner and Joseph Chandler walked up to me and Ron, peering at me through eyes that always looked like he was on the verge of a narcoleptic episode, said that I "sucked Joseph's dick."
I don't remember the context of this conversation. I don't remember if Ron's comment was in response to something I'd said and this was his "clever" response. I don't remember if it was completely unprovoked. What I do remember is that while my face froze in shock and then twisted into a look repulsion, Joseph bent over laughing, damn near slapping his knee.
At eight years old, I had no rebuttal for that. I may have told those two that what they'd said was disgusting but what could I say to rival that? Left with only one playing card, I pulled it.
"I'm going to tell the teacher."
Ron's face mirrored the shocked one I'd worn seconds earlier. My words hit. He was shook.
I said "the teacher" because Ms. Payton, our regular teacher, was out for the day and we were left with a substitute.
Shortly after they'd made the comment, it was time for us to line up and go to one of our specials classes. (Art, music or gym.) Once we were outside of our classroom, I broke the line and marched right up to the substitute. My last name is Wells and we were standing in alphabetical order. So as I walked up, I had a chance to give both Ron and Joe the evil eye, warning them of their imminent doom.
Once I got to the sub, at the front of the line, I told her what Ron had said to me. When I finished, she just stood there, staring down at me stone faced. Stunned by her lack of reaction, I asked her if she'd heard me.
"Yes, I heard you."
I was a lot of things as a little girl; but at that age I almost always respected authority figures. I didn't question them, I obeyed. If I had an objection, I tried to voice it respectfully. But in this moment, I could not believe her apathy.
"Well, aren't you going to do something about it?!"
My stomach dropped but I still didn't understand.
"Because I don't believe you."
I can still recall that feeling of dejection. My mouth hung open because I felt like she'd kicked me in my stomach, rendering me breathless.
To provide some context here, my name is Veronica. If you look up the definition it means true face or image. Long before I'd fully grasped the definition of my name, I placed quite a bit of value on the truth. I wanted my word to mean something. Thankfully, the adults in my life, the ones who understood me, knew that it did.
And while I recognized that this woman was a stranger and didn't know my reputation, it hurt me deeply to know that she didn't believe me.
"Get back in line."
I didn't shoot anyone any eye daggers as I made my way back to the end of the line. My vision was blurred by tears. One of my girl friends at the time, stepped out of line to escort me, rubbing my back as a gesture of sympathy and comfort as I sobbed, audibly.
The rest of the day, I was too devastated to focus on anything else. For hours, I kept wondering why she didn't believe me. What was it about me that said I was a liar?
When I got home that evening and told my parents what happened, likely still crying, they called up to the school and told some administrator what happened. For the rest of my time at Central Elementary, I never saw that woman again.
But the seed she planted, stayed with me.
When I first started writing this piece, I was contemplating about whether or not I should change the names of Ron and Joseph. I wondered if it would be invasive to identify them. But the fact of the matter is, while what they did was wrong and certainly a violation, they were just kids. Kids do dumb shit. Furthermore, who knows what type of environments they were growing up in, that made this type of language accessible to eight-year-olds. The fault doesn't lie with them. It lies with that woman, who looked down at me and essentially called me a liar.
She didn't feel the need to ask Ron and Joseph if they'd said it. She didn't ask any of my other classmates if they'd heard it. She didn't even pretend like she might take care of it later. What she did, doubting my story, telling me she didn't believe me, was a far greater violation than what Ron had said.
For years, decades even, I would wonder about her distrust of me, a stranger and a child. Was it a racial thing? Did she not like kids? Was she just a person with very little intuition?
It wasn't until I learned about the concept of rape culture--probably just a few years ago-- and how women and girls are often mistrusted when they share accounts of assault, that I finally understood why she couldn't hear me, couldn't see the pain in my eyes, in my tears.
That's the world we live in. Thing is, both Ron, Joseph and myself were all strangers to her. And though I know what type of societal patterns and norms that explained why she didn't believe me; it still sucks that as a woman, she couldn't.