By Julie Keon, special to Yahoo Canada*
“If he ever lays a hand on me again, I will kill the bastard.” – from my personal journal
This past spring, the high school I attended had a reunion to celebrate 50 years since opening its doors.
I considered attending, but as the date approached, I decided that it was best that I do not. High school is often portrayed as the “best days of your life,” however, I never really bought into this, as it left the future looking rather bleak. For me, high school was something I had to get through so I could get on with the rest of life. There were several positive moments, but for the most part, they have faded in comparison to the deep-seated rage I have carried around with me since graduating almost thirty years ago.
I wish I could say my experience happened in isolation, but it did not and the pervasiveness of it all is the very reason my rage persisted.
I looked forward to high school and starting this new chapter in my life. I was nervous, of course, but entered grade 9 with a sense of optimism and excitement. I was on the cusp of leaving childhood behind and moving full force into adolescence. I cannot remember when it happened exactly but I know that within months of starting secondary school, there was an undercurrent of warnings that travelled through the female population of the school. It was a well-known fact, that one particular teacher was known for being a slimeball, for lack of a better word.
Sliminess aside, he was also charismatic and connected well with his students. He spoke to us on a level that made us feel grown up and he was relaxed when it came to getting our schoolwork done. At first, I thought he was pretty cool and I looked forward to my classes with him.
His advances began innocently enough, or at least innocent to my 15-year-old mind. While walking through the halls between classes, he would stand in the doorway of his classroom and say “hello” with a wink as I walked by. This progressed into compliments about how I was dressed. And then, eventually, he took it just a little bit further. From his desk, he would stare at me, causing me to squirm with discomfort and when I would glare back at him, he would make a kissing gesture followed by a wink.
By grade 10, the sexual innuendos morphed into harassment. I recall how he would brush his hand on my breast while “helping” me with a project or put a hand on my lower back to walk by when there were three other avenues of getting from point A to point B that did not require uncomfortably close contact with my body. My firm requests for him to stop this behaviour seemed to entice him even more. I assume he persisted because I was a challenge to him. I was outspoken and had no problem telling him to keep his hands off of me. But the more I asked him to stop, the more he sought me out.
Other female students openly talked about what a “perv” he was and how frustrating it was to have to deal with his constant harassment. I recall sharing my situation with a friend who was 10 years older than me and she shared that nine years earlier, as a student at the same high school, she, too, dealt with the very same thing. I was puzzled as to how this teacher could get away with this for so many years.
Still, he was a popular teacher and very much liked by his students. Although, he seemed to pay particular attention to his female students, there were also male students whom he befriended. They were the ones who excelled in the topic he taught. A select group of both male and female students were part of the “in” group that got invited to intimate “gatherings” he would host at his house.
Although he continued to harass me on a daily basis, I was never invited to these gatherings. I suspect he realized what a risk that would be. There were rumours that he had special “relationships” with certain female students. It was common knowledge amongst the students that one young woman in particular was his “girlfriend.” She wasn’t the only one, though. I knew of other students who believed that he actually loved them and that after graduation, he would keep his promise of whisking them away to live happily ever after.
In the days leading up to my 16th birthday, things came to a head when he entered the classroom, put his arm around my waist (as he often did), resting his hand on my hip and pressing his body against mine, and asked me to take a seat. I stood there in front of the class and told him to take his hand off of me. He did not. Instead, he asked me, again, to take a seat. I stood my ground and again, told him that I wasn’t moving until he took his hand off of me. By this time, the other students’ eyes were fixed on us. Again, he told me to take a seat and when I refused to be seated until he removed his hand from my body, he threatened to send me to the principal’s office. In a blinding rage, I headed out to the hallway where I called my mom to tell her what had happened. When I got home, my father had already made arrangements to meet with him the following Monday.
“Tomorrow, I will finally end this nightmare with Mr. _______. Mom, dad and I are going to meet with him and the principal. The bastard sent me to the office on Friday because I told him to keep his goddamn hands off of me and to quit calling me ‘Sweetheart, Dear, Sweetie and Honey.’ I just want it to stop. He is becoming such a pervert. The school won’t do anything until a girl is emotionally damaged for the rest of her life. He has gone too far this time. But I am still scared to do this. It has gone on for so long and there hasn’t been one girl who has spoken out so I guess I gotta do it if I ever want it to stop. It has to stop.” – from my personal journal
As it turned out, my dad met with him one-on-one. I wish I could say that my dad beat the scum out of this teacher and that all of the girls he ever harassed (assaulted) came forward and he spent the rest of his life in prison but that is not how this story unfolds. He was flippant and told my dad that he treated all of his students the same way and that I was just overly sensitive. My dad made it very clear that if there were any more “issues,” he would be going to his superiors. When he returned home that evening, my dad told me that I would be moved to the back of the class and that I should have no more problems. I was devastated.
I returned to school the next day, found my seat in the back of the room and faced this teacher’s sarcastic comments made in front of the class about my “sensitivity.” I was shamed and humiliated which only fueled my rage. By the time June rolled around, I learned that I had received an award in the subject he taught. To this day, I am not certain why I attended the awards night. I remember walking on stage, shaking his hand and then walking into the hallway for a photo op where he firmly placed his arm around my waist. Somewhere within the vast collection of high school photos is a shot of me with a forced smile and gritted teeth.
By the time I was 17, a woman I babysat for thought it would be helpful for me to speak with a social worker. I met with the social worker a couple of times over coffee and I shared my frustrations about home and school life. My parents had separated the year before and had recently reconciled. I also told her about my continued anger with this particular teacher. I recall how she had considered involving the police but there wasn’t sufficient evidence to do so. As it stood, I was the only one talking and so my allegations were kept in a file at Family & Children Services in the case that someone else came forward. My file was closed a couple of months later and remained in the archives of FCS until recently.
Unbeknownst to me at that time, at least one other girl did come forward. She spoke to the guidance counsellor who promptly told her, “Show me the proof.” I would be willing to bet that several students came forward to school authorities with each one having their concerns shut down as quickly as the words left their mouth.
High school eventually ended and I carried this rage with me into my 20s. I secretly hoped someone would come forward to the police but it never happened. I promised that when it did happen (as I believed it was just a matter of time) that I would be the first in line to confirm their allegations. I knew I was not the first and would certainly not be the last.
Several years after graduating, I picked up a young female hitchhiker who had missed the bus. In the moments it took to drive her to the high school and with some vague prodding on my part, I learned that the girls at my old high school continued to be harassed by this male teacher. He was still a creep. Still a predator.
It wasn’t until 24 years after my graduation when I caught up with an old friend from high school that I understood how he got away with what he did. My friend had been part of the “in” group that attended the gatherings at his house. I wanted to talk to her about why no one ever came forward and why to this day, several former students continued to be friends with him. She told me, quite matter-of-factly, that he hadn’t done anything wrong. They (the students who were minors) made the choice to go to his gatherings and to consume the booze and drugs he freely offered. And, she maintained, they made the choice to engage in the sexual escapades that he orchestrated. As she shared the details and defended her “choices,” I felt the familiar rage rise up in me once again. The reality of what went on was far worse than my imaginings as a teenager.
How could anyone think any of this was OK? But in that moment of disclosure by my friend, I realized that in order to survive, she had convinced herself that it was perfectly normal and consensual for a minor to have sex with a high school teacher. Facing the fact that she was a victim of a predator would be far too devastating. Besides, they were flattered to be invited and had fun hanging out at his home. He wasn’t stupid. He relied on the shame that was at the core of every girl he preyed upon to keep anyone from ever talking about it.
Although I walked away relatively unscathed, this time of my life took a deep, emotional toll on me. I spent my 2-s s questioning my judgement, my self-worth and my ability to trust my intuition. I often blamed myself for being “too sensitive.” I have survived sexual assaults in my life that were far worse than his inappropriate touching and yet I spent almost three decades harbouring rage towards this person and about that time in my life.
I now understand that it had little to do with what was done to me. It was rooted in what wasn’t done to stop this predator in his tracks. It had more to do with what I knew he was doing to other girls who perhaps did not have family support or a voice to come forward. My rage came down to the simple fact that I was helpless and he was allowed to carry on for years without anyone stopping it. I had spoken up in a time long before the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. I am certain there were others (in positions of power) who knew what he was doing but chose to turn a blind eye. Over the years, I have wondered how things could have been done differently. Anytime I spoke about that time of my life, my body would tremble. The rage ran so deep that my body expressed it when emotionally I was unable to. I have often looked forward to a day when it all comes crumbling down for him.
As I move towards my 50s, I wish to put this to rest once and for all. Decades of carrying around old rage is long enough. By writing this, I am giving a voice to my 16-year-old self who so desperately needed to be heard by those who were in a position to do something. More importantly, I write it for all of the young women who were silenced and shamed into believing it was their fault. I want them to know that it was never their fault. When they could not feel their rage, I carried enough for all of us.
By sharing this publicly, I hope that it reaches all of the women impacted by the actions and words of this one teacher and that they are validated in the knowledge that they were not alone nor did they do anything wrong.
Eventually, the teacher retired. Many years later I passed by him in a shopping mall. After he did a double take, he scuttled away like a cockroach does when you shine a spotlight on them. I suppose you could say he got away with decades of harassing, preying on and abusing his young female students. I suspect and hope that he suffers every single day with unrelenting, suffocating anxiety knowing that outspoken, feisty girls grow into outspoken, feisty women who never, ever forget.
I wrote this piece in February of 2018. Since then it has been shared with the social worker whom I saw as a teenager, with the director of our local women’s sexual assault centre, with an OPP constable who deals with historic sexual abuse/ assault and with a criminal lawyer. The details of this piece have been purposely kept vague.
Writing this piece and sharing it with people in positions of power has validated and eased my rage. It is my wish that by telling my story, even one woman is helped. Giving a voice to our anger, our regret, our grief and our shame is terrifying yet freeing. Stifled emotions will eventually find a way to be expressed. If you recognize yourself in this piece, there is help available to you. I have provided resources below for this region but these resources exist everywhere:
Julie Keon’s professional career began in the early 90s in the field of social work. She always had a strong desire to work with people as they navigated through life and its various challenges. Eventually, certifying as a birth and postpartum doula (DONA International), Julie founded Mother Nurture Childbirth Services in 1998, assisting couples through the childbirth experience and the early weeks at home with a new baby. Seeing the need for specific support, she created a workshop for women who had experienced difficult or traumatic births.
Julie welcomed the opportunity to become a licensed marriage officiant for the province of Ontario in 2012. To expand her services, she graduated as a certified Life-Cycle Celebrant® in early 2013 from the Celebrant Foundation & Institute with a focus on funeral and end-of-life celebrations. She specializes in the creation and implementation of ceremonies to mark life’s transitions from the start of life to the end of life and everything in between.
Julie published her book “What I Would Tell You~ One Mother’s Adventure with Medical Fragility” in May 2015. She released a revised and expanded edition in December 2017.
Julie is a graduate of and now teaches for the Beyond Yonder Virtual School for Community Deathcaring in Canada. In 2017, she created Ready or Not~ Preparing for the Inevitable, a unique, end-of-life preparation course offered to her community.
Her interests include psychology, health, travel, cooking, writing, and staying vibrant and resilient while holding on to a sense of humour. She shares her life in the Ottawa valley with her husband, Tim, and their daughter, Meredith.