My High School Teacher Groomed Me. I Kept His Secret — Until Now.

"He feigned hesitation about the fact that I had 'just been 16.' But he didn’t move his hand from my thigh."
"We’d meet when I had study hall, or yearbook class, or after school while I was supposed to be tutoring younger students," the author writes.
"We’d meet when I had study hall, or yearbook class, or after school while I was supposed to be tutoring younger students," the author writes.
Lisa Schaetzle via Getty Images

I was 17 the first time my teacher touched me. He was 47.

I was 14 or 15 the first time he paid me special attention, but a senior when he made me feel confident enough to “make the first move” in his classroom, during school hours, with the door locked, back by the closet with the shades pulled down.

This went on the whole spring semester and, I’m mortified to admit, throughout college. He had me under his thumb. He told me I was so smart, so talented, so far above the rest of his students. I was special. I saw him, and he saw me.

I know, now, that what he saw was a victim. An easy target. A girl already fractured. I felt so alienated in my own mind that I was desperate for validation — proof that there wasn’t something wrong with me, that I was just better than these other people. Nobody got me like he did.

We’d meet when I had study hall, or yearbook class, or after school while I was supposed to be tutoring younger students. He’d make thinly veiled references to our “connection” during lectures, read my work aloud, have me sit with him behind his desk while my peers did their classwork and shot me sidelong glances. Once, standing next to him at his desk, he put his hand up my dress and I gasped so audibly that a classmate glanced over.

I’d come into the classroom to find flowers, poetry, little treats on my desk. He’d email me later about my “sweet tight jeans.” He openly resented my (age-appropriate) boyfriend until I ended the relationship. He told me the fantasies he’d had of me over the past year and perhaps even earlier. I’d sneak out of my parents’ house at night and meet him in the neighbor’s dark field. He was a “family friend.” He had unfettered access to me.

Once, early on, in his car, he asked when my birthday was. When I told him, he feigned hesitation about the fact that I had “just been 16.” But he didn’t move his hand from my thigh. Around the same time, he said, “I’m afraid you’ll think of me in the future as some kind of predator.” They tell on themselves every time.

It should’ve been clear to anyone bothering to pay attention. It was a small town; people talked. But no one did anything.

I don’t blame my peers; we were children, after all. Nearly every adult in my life failed me spectacularly. The one aunt who tried to raise the alarm — who saw him for what he was — was ridiculed and shunned. I still regret that today.

He wasn’t the first man to hurt me, and he certainly wasn’t the last; for a long time, I barely acknowledged the hurt he caused because it felt so insignificant. For so long after we were together, I viewed him as just a toxic ex-boyfriend — an abuser, sure, but not a predator. And even when that word did escape my pen for the first time — I did nothing. For a long time.

“It should’ve been clear to anyone bothering to pay attention. It was a small town; people talked. But no one did anything.”

Shame is such a powerful detractor. I was ashamed I had let this happen to me, ashamed I had pursued it in the first place, ashamed that, as a feminist, I could not protect myself from an abusive relationship. So I did nothing.

I did nothing even when I finally told my siblings and friends who cared about me, who urged me to come forward with their full support. I did nothing when my therapist, after finally coaxing the story out of me, lovingly called me a “fucking cliché” — it’s always the English teachers. I did nothing when I found out about the other girl, the one a few years before me, whose near-identical story I read in her own handwriting in a letter hidden in his house.

I did nothing about him, even when a college professor (English, of course) tried the same thing on me and a friend. We went to the head of the department. We went to the Title IX office. He was denied tenure and later fled back to his home state, and I tell that story with so much righteousness despite not being able to remember most of it, not really, not after we got the ball rolling and my panic response set in and we were really doing it.

I couldn’t have done it alone. I wouldn’t have if it were just me.

It wasn’t until a few more years later that I realized I’d been letting that later victory stand in for the one I hadn’t yet won. Because I did nothing about my high school teacher. I never publicly said any of this until now, and even now, I have to use a pseudonym to protect myself. Still — hi, Joe. I hope this sounds familiar. I hope your day’s been terrible.

We were a poorly kept secret all four years of college, but secrets are easy to keep when no one cares to know the truth. I’d graduated and gone out of state to a place where no one knew me. I kept in touch with almost no one. I stayed publicly single the entire time we were together, and when I visited home in the summer, we’d go on “hikes” and “run errands” together as “just friends.”

My college friends knew about my older, overbearing boyfriend, but very few of them knew who he actually was — and they were young, too. None of us saw the gravity of the situation. They simply accepted this dysfunction as part of my life, and I played it off as one of those reckless things you do just for the sake of the story.

Once he had me hooked, he was like many other abusive boyfriends. He’d make me stay on Skype with him for hours every night while I tried to do homework or hang out with friends. When he saw my roommate sitting on my bed one night, he accused me of sleeping with her. He would make the four-hour drive to my college almost every weekend so I never had the opportunity to make plans with anyone else — and when I did, it started a fight every time. He flew out during my semester abroad solely so I would not be able to go on the spring break trip I had planned alone. Everything he did for me came with strings.

I tried to leave so many times, but ultimately, it was easier to stay than to deal with his tantrums, his threats of suicide, his performance as the poor fool unlucky in love. I stayed because it was easy. I stayed because I thought it was love. I stayed because, even after I knew it wasn’t love, it was familiar. I stayed because he had me convinced I had no one else. I stayed because I hadn’t yet learned to actually live my life instead of just letting it happen to me. I stayed because I fucking hated myself. I stayed because it didn’t matter.

Of course, I always knew on some level that it wasn’t right — that I would urge any friend to leave a relationship like ours — but I thought knowing that meant that I was in control.

I left for the last time the summer after college. After a weekend together, he picked a fight while I was still on the train home, and something in me snapped. I finally felt the immense weight of his presence, the exhaustion and dread of seeing his name on my phone, the noose tightening just as my life was starting to open before me. I left, and for once, I never looked back — and I deleted everything. Every trace of our time together.

By the time a former classmate convinced me to come forward, I didn’t think there was a point — everything tangible was gone. Every photo, every email, every shred of evidence that we had ever been together was deleted or destroyed because I wasn’t thinking of it as evidence. He was an ex I wanted to erase, and that was the end of it. I ignored the several times he tried to reach out, and eventually, he stopped.

I can’t, in fairness, name him the catalyst for all the ways I tried to destroy myself in those tender years. That was already well in motion. At 17, I would’ve walked into the lion’s den just to feel something. At 19, I did basically that, and, though I lived to tell the tale, there are things that I’ve done that probably should’ve killed me. There are more than a few that have left deep scars. But when the nightmares come back, it’s almost always him. It’s the hallway outside his classroom, and it’s dark and impossibly long, and I am desperate not to come to the end of it, not to meet him in the bathroom again, not to go home hemorrhaging self-love.

“... There are things that I’ve done that probably should’ve killed me. There are more than a few that have left deep scars. But when the nightmares come back, it’s almost always him.”

He’s far from the only one, but in the hierarchy of people who fucked me up, he is top-tier. And I’m tired of carrying his secret. I’m tired of carrying his shame. And it finally occurred to me that I don’t need evidence. The burden of proof is not on my shoulders because I don’t care if you believe me. Because I know who he is. And he knows who he is. And the people we both knew, deep down, they know, too. And I hope they lay awake at night in their sad little homes in that sad little town, haunted by the knowledge of how profoundly they let me down.

After college, I started therapy, but it would still be a year before I mentioned his name. I got medicated. I realized I didn’t want to die anymore. Things weren’t immediately peachy — the thing about getting stuck at 17 is all the growth you have to make up for later. There were other tumultuous relationships, friendships that exploded in a blaze of glory, relapses of the self-destructive streak I was trying to keep at bay.

Somewhere around 24, the chaos in my mind started to quiet, and I realized for the first time that I was allowed to live my life. That I was in control. That I could just leave. I’ve done a lot of leaving since then.

Today, a decade on from 17, I live a life I had never imagined. I have a love that feels like sun-warmed honey. I have friends who knew me then and friends who didn’t. No part of this was easy. I asked myself the hard questions. I told myself the ugly truths. I read all the codependency books. I learned all about healthy boundaries. And, in time, I opened myself to the love that I have always deserved.

I look back at that girl now, with her secrets and her scars and her desperation, and it’s not shame that overwhelms me, but compassion. She wasn’t trying to hurt me. She wasn’t trying to disappear. She was trying to survive.

And that’s why we’re here, I guess — me as I am today, extending a lifeline to me as I was then, finally capable of living for us both.

The brilliant Phoebe Bridgers said, “You made me feel like an equal, but I’m better than you, and you should know that by now.” And she’s right.

I could have let that man pin me under glass the way he always wanted. I could have stayed and watched the life I actually longed for slip through my fingers. I could have stayed 17 forever. I could have stayed silent forever.

But I didn’t.

Kudra Murphy is the pseudonym of a writer living in Philadelphia.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-866-331-9474 or text “loveis” to 22522 for the National Dating Abuse Helpline.

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