I was five and my class was on a nature walk around our school. The hill we were scaling was pretty steep. My friend Danny was in front of me in his sturdy sneakers that gripped the earth as we climbed. I was taller than he, I was probably stronger than he, but my patent leather shoes were slippery so I clung to tree branches and bushes, trying not to slide back down the hill. Danny turned around and gave me his hand. "What a gentleman," my teacher said approvingly. "Oooh, Danny loves Leigh," my classmates taunted.
I went home and told my mom to throw out my patent leather shoes because they were too small, they pinched my toes. I wanted a pair of sneakers that my feet could grow into. Sneakers wouldn't hold me back, grasping at tree limbs or a little boy's outstretched hand. My mother came home the next day with a pair of sneakers. They had bows and ribbons for laces. They did not grip into the earth. On our next nature walk I slid down the hill, caking my new sneakers in mud.
My classmates laughed at me, my teacher and mother yelled at me. I should have taken Danny's hand again instead of trying to make it up the hill alone.
I was nine and Field Day was approaching. We were all practicing in our gym classes, boys and girls together. Going around the track, all of the girls stopped trying and giggled as they watched the boys race each other. Jeff was so fast, he could even beat the fifth graders. I remembered how the week before, in the girls' gym class I had tried my hardest and gotten around the track first. Everyone was impressed. I wanted to impress Jeff and the other boys, so I ran my fastest and caught up to him. We crossed the line together.
There was a tradition in fourth grade that the popular girls and boys would pair off and walk around the track together during recess. That day at recess I sat on the jungle gym and watched Jeff walk with one of the giggling girls. He and his friends had given me a dirty look after the race in gym, and my friends had looked at me as if I was insane. No one was impressed. Jeff and the girl crossed the line together as the recess bell rang.
I shouldn't have run with him during gym class. I should have stored up my energy, walked with him during recess and not ended up alone.
I was eleven and I dreaded riding the bus every, morning. Mike was in eighth grade and he always sat with me and said things that I knew should be flattering, but weren't. He'd sit so close that I would be pressed against the window, hoping that no part of his body would cross the invisible barrier between us. It always did though, and he'd tell me how I didn't look like I was only in sixth grade, so why was I acting like a little girl. The kids in the seats around us knew what was going on, but they didn't let it interrupt their own conversations, and they stared straight ahead.
One morning I decided I couldn't take it anymore, and I knew what he was doing was wrong. When he got on the bus and my seat was filled, he told the kid to move, and he did. He sat down, and when he started to reach over the invisible barrier I pushed him away. He fell back into the aisle with an exaggerated movement. He started making fun of me, saying stuff like, "0h, yeah, I really want you, I can't keep my hands off of you. "
The bus driver was mad about all the commotion and came to the back of the bus to see what was going on. Mike told her that I had pushed him out of the seat for no reason. I started to object but she told me if she heard one more word out of me she'd write me up. None of the other kids spoke up. The bus was silent.
I shouldn't have made a big deal out of it. If I had taken a cue from the animal kingdom I would have known to play dead. Eventually he would have become bored and left me alone.
I was twelve and in accelerated science. The best and the brightest were in this class and our teacher was supposedly a feminist who desperately wanted girls to take more interest in math and science. What an ideal learning environment. She put us in groups and set us to work.
Greg was in my group, and lucky me, he decided to spend all his time torturing me. At first he'd just stare at me to annoy me, and I could deal with it. Then he started following me around out of class, but I knew it was just an immature joke and I blew it off. Then he started reaching under the table during class, grabbing at my legs, and I was humiliated. His friends told me that he really did like me and this was his way of showing it. It didn't feel like that; it felt like I was the target of his cruel jokes and I didn't know what I was doing to encourage it or what I had done to deserve it.
I would lay in bed at night, crying, not wanting to go into science the next day. I'd have to sit there while he glared at parts of me that I wanted to hide. I wouldn't know how to respond when he'd say things that I still can't bring myself to repeat, and I knew I'd probably just laugh. I kept wondering, "Why me?" and I talked to my friends about it. They told me to go to our teacher and ask to be switched out of his group. She was a supporter of women's rights, wasn't she?
I built up my confidence, I built up my arguments, and I went to her, woman to woman, in the beginning of class before everyone was there. I said my peace, and the class started trickling in. "Greg!", my teacher exclaimed as he walked through the door, "Leave Leigh alone!" But she was laughing, and he was laughing, and she was patting my hand and sending me back to my group with those reassuring words, "Boys will be boys. Its not that bad." So my complaint was a joke, and it was just a boy's nature to do what Greg was doing, then what was natural for me? Girls will be girls and put up with whatever the boys dish out.
I shouldn't have gotten my hopes up that another woman would stand up for me. She left me standing alone.
I was fourteen and John sat in front of me in math class. I always got better grades than he did and it drove him crazy. When we got tests back he would turn around, look at my grade, and turn around again. In between these tests we got along well, but he would get defensive if I understood something that he didn't. Then we started a new chapter, and I was completely lost.
For some reason I had a mental block against complex equations, and he didn't. "This is impossible," I whined one day during class. John took this cue to come sit on the heater next to me, lean in with his arm around me, and try and explain how to do my homework. His voice was a strange mixture of sweet and condescending. I understood for the first time why girls played dumb sometimes, because even if I had understood the math, I would have said I didn't just to keep him there.
The next day in class we were going over the homework and it turned out John didn't really understand what we were doing any better than I did. He was embarrassed and I was slightly annoyed. I picked up on what our teacher was saying, and the concepts started to clear up in my head. Not in his. He failed that test and I got a 90. He wasn't very friendly for the rest of the year.
I should have just put the test away quickly, told him I failed, and admired my grade later, when I was alone.
I was seventeen and dying to act on an attraction that was driving me crazy. So one night I stopped being coy, and I stopped being a tease and I went after my prey and caught it. I was proud, and I was happy to be in control and to have been as aggressive as any guy I'd known. But the next morning things between Josh and me were weird to say the least. He drove me back to my house without a mention of what had happened and without even saying he'd call me later. I started questioning my actions, the ones that the night before had made me feel like a "strong woman", the ones that now made me feel like a slut. I didn't want a relationship with him. All I had wanted was that one night. That's not the way girls were supposed to feel. I wanted him to call though, I wanted us to still be friends. I hoped he still respected me.
I got my answer when I sent my friend to go find out what was going on in his head. "Act like a slut, get treated like one," was his basic sentiment, and I felt like I had been stabbed. What had I done that he hadn't? I hadn't forced him into anything he was unwilling to do.
Weeks later I heard him and his friends joking around about what had happened, and a basic "Josh, you stud," attitude penetrated everything they were saying. When his friends would joke with me about it though, there was a basic "Leigh, you beer slut," attitude penetrating everything they were saying. I am not any kind of slut, and Josh is not any kind of stud.
I should have kicked him out of my bed that night and slept alone.
Leigh Kopczukgraduated from Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School this past June. During the past summer she continued working with the Saratoga Mentoring Program, painting murals and teaching kids that poetry and writing can be fun. She is now attending Towson University as an English major.
© 1997, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Kopczuk, Leigh. (1997). "My Education." WILLA, Volume VI, p. 24-26.