By Atara Twersky, from the real perspective of a 15-year old girl.
A few minor descriptions have been changed to maintain anonymity.
Go back to your childhood for a moment and picture this scene: You walk into the lunchroom, eyes darting around, trying not to look as though you are looking, trying instead to fit in, to blend in, but also hoping, praying even, that someone will notice you just enough to summon you over, to ask you to sit next to them. This is lunchtime at school.
Now picture you are wearing a mask, no part of your face exposed except for your eyes, imagine that no one can see whether you are smiling or frowning, there is no way to really make eye contact since eye contact must go along with facial expressions to be meaningful. Now picture that you haven’t been to school in 6 months. You are already feeling like every friend you had last year probably doesn’t remember you, your heart is pounding, your palms are sweaty, you want to just go home and avoid this entire scene. Instead, this is what you do all week during your first week of high school.
You pray you will find someone to sit next to during lunchtime, during this crazy time called “Corona-Time” and then you do, you find a small group of friends who seem to be ok including you, everyone sits somewhat apart, takes off their masks to eat and you can begin to breathe again. You notice your breathing becoming more normal, your palms less sweaty, at least for today you have someone to sit with at lunch; the dreaded worst part of the day is over.
Or so you thought. You see someone summoning you from afar. You wonder if it is you she is looking at. She is pointing at you, walking briskly in your direction. What have you done? You really cannot think of anything at all. You are a quiet girl, who rarely makes waves, never looks for trouble, and is always respectful to teachers and peers alike. Your mind is racing, did I do something today? Did I forget to sign my name in this morning? Did my mom forget to fill out my coronavirus health report? Are my parents OK?
Oh my god- you are thinking, what can I possibly have done because this teacher is approaching me and even though she is wearing her mask I can see by her walk and by her stern eyes that I am about to get into trouble.
“You,” she says “stand up.”
I am still not sure she is talking to me. I mean I know that she is but I cannot understand what she can possibly want. I am praying I can sink to the ground, disappear. What happened to those magical powers my mother promised me when I was little? I could really use them now. I find myself standing up almost against my will, really beyond my will. I have no will or thought now except this: PLEASE. DO. NOT. CRY.
She is speaking harshly, saying something about my skirt, how it is too short, how it violates the dress code. I feel confused, hot, the blood is simultaneously draining from my face and into my face so that I am both red and white and blotchy all at once. My mask is back on and I am sweating so profoundly that I am sure it is dripping everywhere. What is she talking about and why is she speaking to me as though I am a criminal? She is just about 10 years older than I am, maybe 12. Doesn’t she remember what it is like to have been a teenager? It wasn’t that long ago. I passed her in the hallways last year, she seemed nice enough. My mom, who has a good sense of people, said she thought she was sweet. But the woman standing in front of me was anything but sweet. She was so harsh and loud I felt dizzy.
But then slowly and subsequently suddenly I began to breathe again and the tears I was fighting to keep from dripping down my cheeks turned into pride. I know better than this, I thought. You see I have been brought up by two of the most remarkable people I know. My mom and dad are strong and kind and thoughtful and respectful and I have been brought up to believe in myself and to know right from wrong and to not cower in the face of small people yelling at me.
And so I know suddenly that the appropriate thing to do is to respectfully stand up for myself. “I am sorry, “ I say, “Please stop speaking so harshly to me”.
The woman/child–teacher is taken aback. In this culture, in this school, no one is allowed to speak up for themselves. If a teacher is yelling at you, you must stand obediently and take it. But I know better. I know that despite her tone and her harshness and her position of power, she actually does not have the right to humiliate or insult me. So long as I maintain my dignity I am allowed, in fact, I must stand up for myself.
I repeat my words again. She walks away indignantly. I can tell that even though I am 15 and she is the teacher, I have offended her pride. I breathe for a moment, but somewhere inside me, I know that this is not over.
I take my seat next to my “friends” praying I have not been humiliated beyond repair. I try to smile. Then I remember I am still wearing a mask so instead I sit up straight and tall. I am 5’9 so sitting tall comes easily for me, the tears I am fighting back are less easy to control.
My friends try to act as though nothing unusual happened but I know that they are at once horrified and thrilled it was not them who was berated. Even though they say nice things to me, I can feel that they think I must have done something wrong and I am still sitting there rooted in shame when the second wave of humiliation begins before I have had even a moment to recover.
This time it is swifter and yet somehow stronger. She gets right to the point and I know she is coming for me which makes me prepared but still really unprepared because I cannot really think of my crime. Was it that my skirt was too short? I know there is a dress code but is this really how they enforce it by berating, insulting, shaming, humiliating?
This time it is one of the senior staff members. She wants to know what happened and why I had the “utmost audacity to speak back to a teacher.”
At first, I think I will tell her that I didn’t speak back that I was merely trying to stand my ground, that I remained respectful, that I am not someone who ever speaks rudely because it is just not in my nature. My quietness is strong, it is one of the things you will notice about me first; that I am tall and that I am quiet. So being rude, “in your face” is just not something I would ever do. I want to tell her this to explain that I was humiliated for a minor transgression that involved the length of my skirt, which seems so absurd since the entire rule behind this dress code is predicated in the name of God, in the name of modesty and religious obedience; and doesn’t religion not allow for us to shame and humiliate our fellow man? Isn’t that one of the greatest transgressions, certainly greater than the shortness of my skirt?
But I can see by her eyes and tell by her tone that my words, even spoken quietly and respectfully will anger her more and so I find myself apologizing. “I am sorry if she felt hurt by my words. That wasn’t my intention.” As I say those words I realize that the tears I was fighting back are returning. I am determined to not allow my voice to crack or break. I cannot allow her to see how much she is hurting me. I have only my dignity left but when one apologizes simply out of fear of being further humiliated the response you feel in the core of your being is a further shame and I know that I will cry bitterly later for this shame of being made to defy what my heart knows is true.
For now, I must simply get through this moment. And I do. My words are not my own. I am having an out of body experience, going against everything I have been taught at home. Everything I know to be true because I just want this unbearable moment to stop so that everyone stops looking at me and I can crawl in a hole. I know I will cry later when I retell this to my parents, perhaps I will cry for a long time to come but for now, I will stand tall and straight and hope no one is noticing me.
Later my parents call the principal. They explain that this is not acceptable. In the real world, this is actionable. They are both lawyers so they know first hand that teachers bullying children, requiring them to act submissively, berating them, is something the school can actually get into trouble for. I am grateful the principal, a nice man, seems to understand, he even apologizes on their behalf.
But what everyone doesn’t understand is that I am a 15-year-old girl trying to navigate the lunchroom. I do not want an apology. I do not want to make a statement. I do not want anyone to know my name and I definitely do not want to be a poster child for children’s right to defend themselves. I just want to blend in and have friends to sit with at lunch.
This school, these teachers should be working to facilitate that and worrying about how best to help us teenagers navigate this minefield called school and the teenage years. If they have a dress code to enforce this enforcement is causing untold harm to untold girls who will forever remember the shame of these moments. Certainly no good, no moments of teaching, can ever come from that.
Atara Twersky is a TODAY Show Style Icon, and an attorney in Manhattan where she lives with her husband and three kids. She is also author of the popular Curlee Girlee book series, inspired by her youngest daughter. She is the host of two podcasts, Changing the Course and Pension Trends Plus. This article was written by Atara Twersky, as told to her by the 15-year old girl described in this article. A few minor descriptions were changed to maintain anonymity.