His name was Mr. R------, and he was the head counselor during my last year at the day-camp I had been attending on and off for several years worth of hot New Jersey summers. Mr. R's wife knew my mother quite well, and as such, he was introduced to me as a friend of the family at the same time I met him in the role of counselor.
At first, the comments started off relatively innocently. He would compliment my face, and compare my beauty to my mothers. "I can see where you get it from," he'd say, staring at me with hungry eyes. But soon I realized he made comments to that effect too often. And the looks he gave me were less and less of that between a 40-something camp counselor and his preteen charge, and more and more predatory. Lingering. Unabashed.
Towards the second half of the summer, I began being harassed by a younger student at camp, a boy of no more than 7 who nonetheless made explicit and extensive comments about my body. At one point, by the pool, he went so far as to send me scurrying to Mr. R, the utmost authority and the strictest counselor by far. I wasn't normally one to go to the counselors, I've always preferred handling my problems myself, appealing to a higher authority only as a last resort.
My friend D, a junior counselor, was standing right behind Mr. R as I approached. I told him about the harassment in full, and he had me reluctantly repeat the specifics of what the other camper had been saying. Once I'd finished, I saw D's mouth drop open at just how explicit this tiny child been.
And then Mr. R took a long, appraising, lingering glance up and down the length of my body, and said slowly, "Well, I can understand why he'd say those things." And with that, he turned away to handle some other business, my audience with him clearly ended. I heard D's teeth click as his jaw snapped back up in pure shock of what had just happened. Any of it would have been bad enough, but all of it together was just too much to handle: Mr. R's response, the lack of action taken against the younger boy in our normally very strict camp, and the preposterousness of what the highest authority at our camp had just said and done to a preteen girl.
The other counselors were downright meek in the face of Mr. R's intimidating ways. He was pleasant enough normally, but he made sure that counselors and campers alike knew that all camp business ran through him. None of the other counselors would do anything to cross him, and we were well aware of that. We felt powerless. D and I had already had a close relationship, but after that he became even more protective, and he and I both did our best to keep me as far away from Mr. R as humanly possible. We managed fairly well for the rest of the short summer session, and I'm sure that the memories of that summer have faded into a pleasant haze for everyone involved.
Everyone except for me, of course. I had been betrayed by Adults -those tall, god-like people whose job it was to protect me. I'd mentioned Mr. R's behavior and comments to my mother a little earlier in the summer, but at that time, I didn't realize just how much they were affecting me. And as a general complainer, I would have needed to be a lot more clear in my own mind to get the point across to my mother. She was used to my general dissatisfaction with things around me and usually just let my complaints wash over her, paying no heed to anything short of the house being on fire. And even then, she probably would have continued to play her computer game for another thirty seconds before even that urgent message would've sunk in completely.
That summer was the year I learned to feel powerless in the face of corruption so high above me that I couldn't see any alternative. The summer that I felt utterly violated with just words and looks, without a single hand laid on me. I was made acutely aware of both my femaleness and my helplessness, repeatedly, and couldn't help but to connect the two in my head. To this day, I have issues with the idea of being feminine. Not in general, but just as it applies to me. I can't forget those moments of being hyper-aware of my gender, intimately intertwined with the terror of being one of the weak and defenseless.
Years went by, and it was only with the perspective of time that I really started to get angry, to realize just how horrible he'd made me feel, just how unsafe I'd felt in my own skin, and just how inappropriate his actions towards me really were. I want to go back in time to protect that shaken twelve-year at a time when she couldn't protect herself. The thought occurred to me today that while it's far too late to make any formal complaint against him, he might still be working with kids. The thought gave me chills, so I'm looking into it.
I don't really regret the negative encounters in my life, as I quite like the resilience, fortitude, and depth of experience I've cultivated from them. (Each brush stroke contributing to the overall painting and all that drivel.) But still, when I think about those times and my skin starts to crawl, leaving me feeling feeling dirty, extremely uncomfortable and in need of a shower, a part of me desperately wishes that I'd ended that summer the way I'd started it: as just a twelve-year old girl, enjoying her last year at camp.
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