This week, our island’s public school children embark on a brand new school year. I don’t know if being a teacher makes me extra excited about new school years or if being a nerd does, but they always put me in a good mood. I love seeing my relatives and friends share bright shiny pictures of their kids smiling, clean, and ready for the classroom. I realize that not every morning will be like that. Somewhere along the way, in about two weeks, many of those smiling, clean kids will be getting out of their parents’ cars with a muyu and mugu in their eyes, barely awake and completely over reporting to the classroom. In turn, parents won’t have half as much fun getting the kids ready either. It all becomes part of the routine you’re stuck doing when you’re part of a busy household. The novelty wears off. But this morning, I found myself a little disappointed and thinking about another part of the school year that is very routine for many of our island’s young ladies heading to school. It was part of my morning routine as middle school, high school, and even as a college student waiting at the bus stop, and I was sad to see that some of our back to school routines have NOT changed. I’m talking about the sexual harassment and catcalling that occurs, almost daily, for female students waiting for their rides to school or walking to campus.
Last year, I involved myself in an incident after witnessing a GW student followed and catcalled by a truck full of men during her morning walk to school. While driving, I watched the girl keep her head down and continue to walk, trying to pretend no one was whistling or inviting her to get in their car. I watched as the truck slowed down and made a point of honking at her. I was deeply troubled to see how much effort it took for this girl to keep walking and looking ahead. I was scared for her when I saw that the truck was slowing to a crawl and keeping pace with her strides, the men making sure she heard every word or invitation they launched at her. I ended up pulling over, asking if the girl was okay and shooing away the men, who flicked me off and called me a bunch of names before speeding away. To my horror, the truck full of men eventually U-turned, started tailing my car and honking at me. It made me feel unsafe and when I shared the story with others later, people generally scolded me for pulling over and not thinking of my personal safety. They told me that next time, I should simply call and report the incident. A part of me still thinks I might pull over again if I saw something that extreme occur. I don’t know if I’d be able to help myself.
A few months later, I saw a similar thing happening to a group of GW girls walking home along the back road (a stretch of road that is pretty remote). Again, cars slowed to shout things at the students or honk as they tried to ignore it. I thought about the way, as young women, we are often taught not to respond, to keep walking, and do NOTHING that may anger the person hollering at you or cause him to interpret looking back as a sign of welcome. Many young girls are taught to quietly tolerate it. Many men believe the behavior is flattering or typical. It’s just “guys being guys.” Women who complain about it or find it insulting are sometimes accused of being “silly.” But for me, watching a bunch of young girls just trying to get to and from school without being harassed is incredibly disturbing.
I spoke with some of my students about this, asking them if, while they were in high school or middle school, this was also part of their morning routine. Many of them admitted that it definitely occurred. They all had their own individual street harassment stories to share. Some added that with classes starting really early due to their block schedules, they were out at the bus stops while it was still dark, which was sometimes scary. Some of them laughed it off, accepting that it was “just how it is for girls.” They reported early morning drunks lingering near convenience stores or bus stops, making comments or trying to talk to them. Harassment and catcalls on the way to school were things they expected and tried not to think about too much. They confirmed that cat calls and harassment of that type made them feel unsafe, “icky,” or humiliated, but didn’t know what else to do. Feeling unsafe, “icky,” and humiliated was part of their routine as young women.
This morning, I watched again as a few young girls tried to stay quiet and with their heads down at bus stops or near the road while men passing made smooching noises, clicks (as if calling a horse), or honked at them. I know that many of you will say this is just the world we live in, but I really don’t think it has to be. It may take time to change this particular “routine,” but my prayer and hope is that as a community, we all become invested in the safety and dignity of our kids. I don’t believe that there is “nothing” we can do about this. We can start by sending a firm message to the young men we raise that it is NOT cute or acceptable to humiliate or harass females. It doesn’t make them feel pretty or grateful for the attention; it most often makes them feel unsafe. So unless you want girls to feel gross and unsafe when you talk to them, harassment is a pretty ineffective way to communicate with the opposite sex. It’s not okay to call them names or get angry if your advances are not welcome. Is there a parent or trustworthy adult willing to hangout at the bus stop and watch over things until their ride comes? On my street, I noticed that there is always a parent or two waiting in a car a few feet away from the bus stop, making sure the kids get on safely. When we see drivers being inappropriate to school children, do we just keep driving and shake our heads in disgust? Maybe we can take down the license plates or make a point of loudly and clearly asking the child if everything is okay. You’d be surprised at how often a simple, “Hey, is everything okay?” will ward off a street harasser. There may not be one sweeping solution to the problem, but I believe there are little things we can do to create an atmosphere where it is less acceptable. You may have some ideas of your own. Your ideas might be better than mine.
Whatever the case, that is what was on my mind this morning as I watched our island’s kids make their way out for Fall 2015. I’m wishing them all a productive and happy new school year and hoping that the things we consider “routine” and normal continue to evolve for their benefit. I’m hoping the baby I’m carrying right now is a little girl. I’ve always wanted a baby girl. I’m hoping that by the time she is old enough to wait at a bus stop to get to school, street harassment isn’t something society will teach her to “expect.” I don’t want to hand down this particular back to school tradition.