When I was a junior at Norwalk High, I developed a crush on my engineering/physics teacher.
Don’t judge me.
We all have, at one point or another, had crushes on at least one of our teachers.
Here’s the thing, though: The Teacher Crush is a fantasy that is never meant to be realized.
Why? Because the teacher wouldn’t stand for it. The teacher sees the student as a child, and if not a child, at least someone who’s not on the same developmental, emotional or spiritual level as him or her, and therefore not the least bit appealing.
This is what we can hope for, at least.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.
At least this was not the case with me.
When I discovered, to my genuine surprise, that I was attracted to my physics teacher, I didn’t hesitate to let my friends know. It was, after all, a trivial topic of laughter-- a classroom joke to be taken very lightly.
I thought back to one of my classmates at Corvallis Middle School and how she had a crush on our new PE teacher and just how harmless it was: it was simply a fun thing to laugh about, like having a crush on a celebrity. The key understanding is that such an attraction was unattainable.
You can only imagine my surprise at realizing that my physics teacher was into me, too.
I discovered he was into me because I wasn’t doing as well as I wanted to in the class. I should’ve been getting A’s, but instead I was getting C’s. I was college-bound and wanted to know what I needed to do to get my grade up and save my precious GPA.
Honestly, this is such a typical scenario I’m embarrassed to retell it.
I remember being extra giggly in class one day and giving him the obvious hint that I was smitten, but it wasn’t until I was alone, checking my grade and working to earn extra credit in his classroom after school that I realized the attraction was mutual.
And looking back, my attraction was pretty strange. He wasn’t my “type” at all. I’m not entirely sure what it was I was even attracted to.
The last teacher I’d had a crush on was my art teacher at the Norwalk Arts and Sports Complex when I was in elementary/middle school, but that was because he was so passionate about being an artist and being a teacher, and he was so awesome with all of us kids in the art program that it really took my breath away…I suppose I saw something I wanted to be in him. And obviously, nothing happened because I was a kid and he was a teacher and I’m sure he’d had his share of students drooling over him while he gently repelled them and redirected them to focusing on their education…something I can relate to now as a substitute teacher.
And really, we’ve all seen it. Guys falling head over heels for young female teachers and girls crushing hard on young male teachers.
In fact, there was a teacher that we had my sophomore year, Mrs. Mirabal, a young and gorgeous fair-skinned, blue-eyed Cuban that every boy at school fell for, but her insistence on viewing us as children and her own status as a new mother worked as a potent repellent against her many adoring male and female students.
That is because there is simply no excuse for crossing the line. As adults and professionals, we should know better.
So why do I still feel like I’m to blame for what happened?
Why do I still feel like it was my fault?
Nevertheless, it’s been 13 years since I have sat in his classroom and I’m upset by the realization that my silence has done absolutely nothing to benefit the twelve years’ worth of girls that have streamed through his classroom since then.
The weight of this didn’t even hit me until yesterday.
Yesterday, I was invited to sub at Norwalk High for the first time since finishing my long-term assignment at San Pedro High School before Thanksgiving Break.
And well, everything was going great until I was asked to cover the 4th period ASB class.
Here, I told my students that I had graduated from Norwalk in 2006 and somewhere in the midst of me recalling my time there they brought up my old physics teacher. They said that he was a “weirdo.”
I asked, “what do you mean, he’s a weirdo?” My guts began to suddenly wrench.
“He’s inappropriate towards some of the girls,” one of the students explained.
My mind began racing. My expression was suddenly a mixture of resignation and panic. I knew what the Universe was trying to tell me.
It was time to tell my story.
But before I inserted myself into the narrative, I decided to first ask questions and continue listening to what the kids had to say.
I learned that he was known for singling out at least one girl from the classroom and being overly attentive towards her. One of the students even said that he would point the camera of his iPad towards a girl and have her face projected for everyone to see and then compliment her looks. Another student, a female, said that she could confirm that someone had already come forward and “told on him.” A male student said that his girlfriend was in his class and she complained about him being inappropriate and flirtatious towards her. Apparently, he had been gone for a few days because of this issue. Further, there were rumors that he had been sexually involved with a student and someone had finally spoken up about it.
So, it was catching up to him.
That same student told me that he wanted it to stop but nothing has happened and there’s no proof of the validity of the accusations, only whispers and rumors. “It’s admin,” He kept repeating, as if that was enough of an explanation for the situation, and sadly, I could see how it was for him. “There’s no proof. No one has come forward.” I could sense his feelings of helplessness with regard to the situation. He further explained that the teacher was tenured and therefore it would be difficult to fire him. Another student added, “Plus, there really aren’t that many science teachers out there for us to choose from.” It was as if they felt that they HAD to deal with his inappropriate behavior because of his indispensable position as a faculty member in a high-demand subject.
They finally turned to me. “What about you, Ms.? Was he ever inappropriate in front of you?”
I held my tongue for a while. I didn’t even know how to begin.
I wasn’t going to spit out, “He fondled my naked breasts behind his classroom where his storage lab was and then gave me an A for the rest of the year.”
I wasn’t going to confess, “I had a crush on him and he took advantage of the fact that I wasn’t doing well in the class by offering me an extra credit assignment he benefited from more than me.”
I wasn’t going to remark, “I stopped by the gym once during wrestling practice to say hi to my friend and he knelt down and stayed there until I left because, according to him, I had given him a hard-on upon my arrival.”
I didn’t add, “Years later, I talked to that same friend and learned that he and a few others from the wrestling team knew about what had happened and laughed about it amongst themselves, labeling me a slut.”
They would have been downright horrified, and the rumors would have flown faster than a HAARP-induced California wildfire. I only just started back at Norwalk-La Mirada Unified, and had been previously forced to resign for openly talking shit about the administration back in 2010 for their negligent behavior in the ASES program at Waite Middle School. I was truly hesitant to speak up again, knowing I would once again be at risk for dismissal.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t stay silent. I had to speak.
“I was one of the students he targeted,” I finally admitted.
“What was he like towards you? Was he flirtatious too?”
“Yes, he was.” I replied.
I continued by assuring them that they should not feel as if they have to deal with sexual harassment at school. I gave them some examples of the many ways that I remained silent and how it negatively played out for me and my classmates, particularly the victims of abuse, doing my best to avoid the thing that I needed to say the most.
For example, I told them that during my sophomore year there was a girl who was rumored to have been sexually involved with the school’s basketball coach, Mr. Shelton Hill, and instead of her fellow students speaking up on her behalf, they chose to demonize her and call her a slut, instead. One afternoon, this same basketball coach was walking by with a guy whom I had a crush on, took one look at me while I stood on top of a chair trying to fix something on the wall or ceiling of my classroom, I can’t remember which, and turned to him to say, “she’s got some big tits.”
I stood there, shocked, not really sure what to do. So I did nothing.
I explained to the ASB students that nothing was going to change unless people spoke up, and I wish that I had spoken up when I was a student, because then I think I would have made a difference in many girls’ lives and would have prevented future incidents of harassment.
But I kept my mouth shut because I thought I wouldn’t make a difference. And that simply wasn’t true, I told them. More than every, they needed to speak up about it and let others know that it’s not okay. I gave them further examples of the ways I learned to speak up after graduation, namely while working at Macaroni Grill in Cerritos, where I initiated a sexual harassment complaint against one of the managers who was eventually fired after the company received statements from well over a dozen girls whom he’d harassed during work hours at that branch.
“So are you going to say something now, Ms.?” They asked me.
“It’s looking like I’ll have to,” I sighed.
I ruminated on this as I walked off-campus to grab lunch, driving through the familiar landmarks of my hometown, wondering which way to turn to find a vegan meal.
I was texting and driving about what had just happened with a couple of my friends whom had graduated from Norwalk with me in 2006.
“Just confront him.” One friend said.
“But how? What am I going to say?”
“You know exactly what to say.” He plainly replied.
Another friend was horrified that it was still going on and glad that he had finally faced some consequences for his behavior, even if they were overwhelmingly mild compared to what he had done to earn them.
I was so distraught in my text message exchanges, relating what I’d learned while in the ASB room that I was holding up the line at Subway. I had only a 30-minute lunch and had swiftly decided to settle for their new vegan patty, never mind the fact that it was bland and probably genetically modified. It was better than fast food, and Norwalk didn’t have much to offer in the vegan cuisine department, anyway.
I briefly looked up and to my left, and there, patiently waiting to be ringed up for his sandwich, was my abuser.
This is actually the first time I’ve even referred to him as “my abuser.”
This is the first time I’ve admitted that I was abused.
You see, I always thought that I was the one to blame. That I asked for it. That I made myself too available. I was the slut. I was the girl with the crush that opened up the opportunity. He couldn’t help himself. He was only a man. I was the one with all of the power. I tempted him.
It’s amazing how I earned a degree in Women’s Studies from one of the best universities in America and I was still unable to process this event as an instance of gendered exploitation.
Once, at brunch with my girls at Masataco in Whittier, I recounted this story with an exaggerated mirth. I remembered how I had a crush, and he made a move, and I went along and got an A for it and that was the end of the story. I laughed as I verbally reminisced over this unconventionally appealing high school physics teacher, married with children, fawning over a teenaged girl like me, who, as a junior in high school, was able to tempt him to the degree that he was able to lose his sense of morality and move his hands up my blouse while we stood together in the back room of his classroom. I painted myself as some teenaged Femme Fatale for my audience of three.
But that isn’t really how it happened.
On the day it happened, I wore denim, Pumas and a tacky pink and white Baby Phat shirt. My hair was braided. When he put his hands on me I suddenly realized what was happening and had to quickly detach myself from the experience. I didn’t let it get any further than the fondling and nonchalantly, still pretending that everything was cool, I casually walked away and emerged from his classroom, visibly shocked by what had happened. I made my trek to the locker room, changed and headed to the soccer field to begin my after-school practice. I then silently carried this with me and after that incident, I no longer made any moves to visit him.
I was weirded out. It got too real. I suddenly saw him for the gross creep that he was, putting his hands on my teenaged body and enjoying himself, feeling lucky that he got so close. I no longer felt attracted. The distance in age between us was suddenly magnified and I realized he must have been my absent dad’s age, if not older.
I wasn’t a Femme Fatale at all. I was just a kid. A kid choosing to change the narrative from that of a victim to that of a sexualized, empowered female in order to cope with the reality of the abuse.
Because if I really was that into him, and it was truly consensual, I would’ve surely gone back for more, wouldn’t I?
But I had to find some way to live with my feelings of shame and disgust. I had to find a way to cope. And I preferred to call myself an opportunistic slut than a bamboozled girl-child.
At least being a slut carried the power of choice.
Here’s the big problem. The big truth that I couldn’t escape.
I was sixteen.
I considered myself a mature sixteen-year-old at the time, but now that I am thirty and teaching sixteen-year-olds, I am coming to terms with how far from the truth I was.
I didn’t REALLY have a choice.
He took advantage of my impressionable, vulnerable nature, my misplaced attraction and my desperation to preserve my GPA.
If, in the present, I overheard a sixteen-year-old girl telling her girlfriends that her physics teacher laid his hands on her and then gave her an A on her transcript in exchange for the event, would I have considered this to be her choice? Would I have labeled her a slut? Or would I have seen it for what it really was: an instance where a teacher took advantage of his power both as a man and a tenured faculty member to sexually abuse a child?
It boils my blood to even imagine that this could have happened to any of the girls that I have taught over the years, and by choosing to imagine that this event happened to them instead of me, I can finally see the event for what it really was.
I imagine what it would be like if I one day learned that my own daughter had endured this situation. I’d want to castrate him.
But as he stood next to me at the Subway line and I briefly glanced up at him before looking straight ahead to my order in progress, I took note of his aging, bloated figure, his stunted growth (I am taller than him now), his white facial hair, balding head and his sad, watery eyes…and I felt pity for him and the girls he’s making uncomfortable. Because 13 years have gone by, and now he’s nothing but a delusional old creeper hopelessly believing that these young girls enjoy his compliments, and that he’s “still got it,” when in reality they are reporting to their boyfriends, friends, and now their authority figures just how grossed out they feel.
Mr. Gutierrez, you’re a fucking CREEP.
And THAT’S why I’m deciding to tell this story.
I don’t care if you get canned or not. I care more about the girls in the classroom knowing that you’re a creep so that they’ll watch out for you when you get too close, and don’t dismiss your behavior as happening “just in their imagination.”
I care more about the girls struggling in your class knowing that they don’t need to compromise themselves by accepting any of your distasteful advances.
I care about them thinking twice before allowing you to give them your Snapchat account.
I care about arming all girls against men like you, men like Mr. Shelton Hill, Mr. Ridge and others who have crossed the line and continue trying to overstep their moral and professional boundaries, so they never have to go through what I went through and blame themselves in the process.
I also don’t give a shit that it’s been 13 years since it happened. I just found out via a phone call with a friend last night that there were some kids who graduated just two years after me in 2008 who were also affected by your inappropriate antics, but I’m not going to go out of my way to find them or name names…I’m sure if they feel inspired by my decision to open up about this experience, they will make the decision to open up on their own. That’s their choice. I’m only speaking up because of the kids in the ASB class yesterday who felt that they had NO CHOICE except to suffer silently through your behavior, because your position of privilege in the school, your position as a man in society, and the Norwalk La Mirada Unified School District’s fear of having their reputation tarnished by your actions allows you to continue teaching with only a slap on the wrist and a three-day, PAID suspension from your post.
Did I mention that some staff members came forward to the administration about this situation and were SILENCED and threatened with job loss?
Well, I’m not going to be a hypocrite, strolling through the halls of Norwalk High, calling myself a feminist and letting my silence serve to protect a man who clearly had no interest in protecting the girls he was teaching.
I was a fool for assuming that what happened between me and you had been an isolated event, instead of a long-standing pattern that you perpetuate.
So you can suck on this, Robert.