Why you should care

Because reflecting on a minute choice might help us learn for the future.

The author is an OZY essayist who has written six books.

I felt the warm spring sun beaming through the window over my shoulder as Mr. Gale approached me from behind. I felt him creep close, slowly, like a wild animal stalking his prey.

“Good morn-ing, lit-tle boy, and how are you?” he asked, slowly separating every syllable of every word. “I’m fine,” I responded evenly. “So. Do you know what you are sup-pose’ to be do-ing?” he inquired. “Yep,” I said. “Yes, sir, Mr. Gale,” he modeled with authority. “Yes, sir, Mr. Gale,” I repeated. That’s how it started: him teaching, me agreeing, me assenting. But assent goes only so far. Assent stopped long before the second he placed his hand between my legs. Before his stubble rubbed against my youthful skin. He nibbled slowly on my right ear and said something nasty in a strange, hushed voice. I froze in shock, and was sure that what was happening was very wrong as he reached inside my pants. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that this was all wrong. Even my daddy never did such a thang.

I felt something crazy build inside of me. I jumped out of my seat and ran toward the door. I was in the hallway, headed to the principal’s office. With one more quick turn to the right I’d reach my destination, but as I ran, guilt consumed me. I made a critical choice: a bad, baffling choice. Instead of turning right and on to the principal’s office, I headed left up a flight of stairs to the second floor. Mr. Gale was only steps behind. I wasn’t going to let him catch me, though. I darted into the boy’s restroom under the stairway and ran directly to the row of stalls. I opened an empty stall door and jumped on top of the toilet seat. I closed my eyes in an attempt to calm the panic causing my heart to race uncontrollably. I knew I had to keep silent, so I pressed my trembling hands over my mouth.

I needed desperately for someone to come and take me away from the madness, but there was no one available.

I was running from a man who was paid to teach, running from a man who needed me to feed a sinful craving that burned inside of him. What could he possibly want with me? If Mr. Gale was going to take what I later came to know as my innocence, I intuited that it would be there in that stall. I was at the end with nowhere else to run. The longer I stood there on top of the toilet, the weaker my legs became. I wanted to cry, but my eyes just couldn’t produce tears. I wanted my mother and father — somebody, anybody — to come to my rescue.

I needed desperately for someone to come and take me away from the madness, but there was no one available in a school filled with students and teachers. I couldn’t believe that no one had seen or heard the wild chase through the halls. I remained a prisoner in the unbearably filthy, urine-soaked stall. I inhaled the stench and dealt with the filth, the much less painful price. The stench of Mr. Gale’s pitiful breath lingered against my ear and neck. I stayed in place, deliberating my faith, still too ashamed to cry and too engulfed in blame to wonder why.

The lighting in the bathroom was terrible, and it was hard to adjust my eyes, and even harder to remain still. But I had to. The acoustics were extreme. You could have heard a mouse dancing on a stage of cotton, or a roach nosing across a carpeted kitchen floor. By the time the sound of the bell ended art period, the beating of my heart had settled. I jumped down to the floor and ran toward the door. I had hovered over that toilet seat for almost an hour.

This is a story many people hear from the other end: the shame, the disbelief, the fear to tell anyone about it. This is how it looked from my end. And this is how it has looked in retrospect: I visualized the whole scenario so many times in the years since; each step has become vividly etched in my mind. Years later I still found myself asking unwarranted questions. Did I provoke him? What did I do wrong? Why me? If I could somehow turn back the hands of time, I would take the right turn down the hall and run straight to the office to tell someone. I would tell my parents. I would run the other way, down the right hallway. But I followed the choice my muscles made.

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