I remember his name. I would never say it here. That is a function of appropriate behavior, which I hope I exercise, and I know – he did not.
My teacher would call me sweetheart; worse, it was the way he looked at me, and then came too close. The way he touched, or did I only imagine it?
I was 12 or 13. I wore my hair long, usually straight and loose. Sometimes I pulled it to the side in a pony tail or braid, tied with brightly colored yarn. It was a style that was popular though I didn’t wear it often; for one thing, he would corner me as the class was filing out, then lift the tip of the braid, making some sort of a remark.
Or he would stare. Saying nothing at all.
Occasionally, his fingers would brush my breasts. My discomfort told me this was a violation, but school itself was pressure enough. I needed to stay focused. To ignore whatever “this” was. In any case I had no words for it, and no specific instruction in disallowing it.
He was a beefy man with a shock of silver hair. He had a sharp edge to his manner, and scowled when he was displeased. He wore spectacles typical of the 1950s though this was the late 60s, and his authority was never questioned.
This was a time before sexual harassment. This was a time before sexual anything was openly discussed, much less the evolution of our insistence on (excessively?) politically correct language and its enforcement.
This was about discomfort, approaching a boundary, never transgressing – or so I thought – but nonetheless leaving me vulnerable and unsettled.
Isn’t that in itself a transgression?
Now I wonder if I was the only one with whom he crossed this line. If there were others. If he did more than touch their hair or brush their breasts.
Terms of Endearment
Some have called me sweetheart and I’ve been irritated. Some have called me honey, and I’ve hated that. Any number of cute names may be exchanged between family members or intimate partners, and no problem. But out in the world?
I give that a big, fat no. It’s out of the question, in my opinion. And the only way to stop it is to put a stop to it. To speak up.
But do kids and teenagers try to do just that? Don’t we still send our children mixed messages in the life skills we teach – telling them to protect themselves and their personal space, but not to talk back or disrespect their elders?
And what about women who say sweetheart to a child? Or men, for that matter, because it’s what comes naturally and it genuinely means nothing at all? How do we know the difference?
The Diminutive Dear
I am on the receiving end of “dear” from time to time by those who are older, or who presume to be my elders.
It carries with it the weight of the 50s generation – mid-century mores and generational entitlement. The sort of “kids should be seen and not heard” attitude which, no doubt, was part of my confusion when my teacher came too close, allowing himself to touch my hair. Invading my personal space, and leaving me paralyzed.
I couldn’t say anything.
I didn’t dare say anything.
In our various environments we may use the same terms with one person and they are amused or delighted; with another, we may offend. Context matters. An individual’s experience matters.
I find political correctness to be both a burden and a step in an appropriate direction. It nibbles on our freedoms, but it strives to ensure respect. And more – the sanctity of that sense of personal space.
In our private lives what we call each other is the business of individual transactions; I will determine if the use of a term offends me, and I will determine if I can – or should – take exception to it.
As adults, we pick our battles.
Language and Co-Workers
When dealing with language and behaviors in the work place, we find ourselves in land of sexual harassment policies, company policies, and the unwritten rules of engagement that make sense in a particular professional setting.
I recall being on a team some years back in which the jokes flew along with sexual innuendo and language that might offend some; we were all having a great time and when the propriety police cracked down, it impinged on the nature of our interactions. Everything was less fun.
Obviously, we adjusted. Ironically, had there been use of terms like dear and honey – that would’ve been fine (albeit an eyebrow might have been raised depending on the scenario), but it wouldn’t have been fine with me.
Teaching Kids What to Say and What to Hear
How do we even begin to teach our children what to say and how to interpret what they hear?
- How do we teach our boys what they cannot do or say, even in jest?
- How do we teach boys and girls both to tell us about anything that makes them uncomfortable?
- How do we not restrict natural speech patterns in the process?
- Who gets to draw the line?
As for my own experience when I was 12, I counted the days until the end of the year when I would no longer have to worry, to feel embarrassed, to feel – somehow – belittled. I never spoke up. I wouldn’t have know what to say, nor to whom I could have said it.
© D A Wolf