It happened when I was eight or nine years old. I don't remember for sure. All I know is I was much too young to understand. I was swimming at the local recreation center with a group of friends. My parents were not there. Another mom had taken us. She was in charge of watching over us and keeping us safe that day.
I was temporarily separated from my friends, working on my mermaid swim as I often did at that age. Feet close together, arms outstretched, I attempted to glide through the water as graceful as a mythical sea creature. I came up for air and someone grabbed me.
I was pulled into a circle of older boys. I'm not sure how old. Before I knew what was happening, they had scattered, laughing.
I was once again alone in the water, completely confused about what had just taken place.
I made my way to the safety of my friend's mom. She was a grown-up. She would know what to do. When I reached her, I started to cry, wishing my own mom was there. She was sitting on a step in the shallow end, talking to another lady. I remember crouching down so even my shoulders stayed submerged in the three feet of water. I was afraid the boys were looking. I told her what had happened, the best I knew how. Some boys grabbed me. They touched me ... wrong. They swam away.
With angry eyes and not more than a glance, she told me telling lies was wrong and not to say such things, then turned back to her conversation.
As a young girl who hated to be in trouble and had a guilty conscience about every ant I accidentally stepped on, I was suddenly sure what had happened was my fault, even if I wasn't sure why or how.
I shivered in a corner of the pool until it was time to go home. I never told anyone else. It was a secret I carried with me until the age of 31. One day the memory of that day in the pool returned to me while talking to my sister about our childhood and guilt. As I told her the story, the details of the day returned. I was sick. And sad. And angry.
I was taught repeatedly as a child not to show my shoulders because it would "give boys bad thoughts." This was translated in my young mind to mean, "If a boy has bad thoughts, a girl did something wrong to put them there in the first place."
Sometimes when I walk down the street and see leering eyes up ahead, I cringe. I know that even if nothing is said, the looks I get will make me feel violated. Whistles, long looks and nudges are just accepted as "boys being boys, men being men." Is it happening because I'm wearing the wrong thing, walking the wrong way, giving them the wrong impression? Sometimes I have to fight the urge to wonder.
It only happened to me once and it only happened for a few seconds. I endured much less than many others. The experience didn't really affect me. Or did it? Those boys swam away and went on with their lives. They were never called out, never punished. Never told what they had done was unspeakable.
Did they go on to do worse things because they got away with what they did to me?
That mom drove us all home and went about her life. No one ever told her what she had done was also unspeakable. To this mom, I say, you should have stood up for me and protected me. You should have helped me understand what had just happened and why it wasn't my fault at all. You should have told someone. Maybe even gotten those boys thrown out, banned from ever lurking in those waters again.
To those boys I say, do you realize what you did? Do you understand the value of what you stole from me in those brief and fleeting seconds of my young life? What you did that day is not my fault.
Did those boys or that mom ever feel guilty about what they did and didn't do that day?
I no longer feel guilty. I feel heartbroken for any young girl out there who is ever made to feel at fault when she is nothing but a victim.
To anyone out there who has been a victim, I say, it's not your fault. It's not okay. It's never alright. I share this story with a plea to parents and teachers and adults with little ones who trust you. Please look out for them. Please stand up for them. Please educate them.