Our Reading Lives

On Writing, Sexual Harassment, and Being an Example

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Always books. Never boring.

This is a guest post from Corey Ann Haydu, the author of six young adult and middle grade novels, including OCD LOVE STORY, RULES FOR STEALING STARS, THE CAREFUL UNDRESSING OF LOVE, and THE SOMEDAY SUITCASE. In 2013 Corey was chosen as one of Publisher Weekly’s Flying Starts. She is a graduate of the New School Writing for Children Program and is a creative writing teacher for adults and children. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and dog. Follow her on Twitter @coreyannhaydu.

The first time I got sexually harassed it was by sixth grade boys.

I was ten and a rumor got started that I stuffed my bra. The rumor wasn’t true, and I’m not sure what I found more humiliating—that they thought I stuffed my bra, or that my breasts were already so big that it seemed like I had. The boys began a harassment campaign that involved them coming up to me at recess, sneezing, and asking me for a tissue while staring at my chest. It took me a while to figure out the why of all this, and when I did, I wanted to hide. I was confused and embarrassed and panicked at the way I was changing so noticeably.

At ten, I wanted to be noticed for my solo rendition of the duet A Whole New World and my cool style, where I matched my patterned vests to my outfits. I wanted to be known for my excellent spelling and my mastery of the state capitals. I wanted to be special.

But not for having big breasts.

The last time I experienced sexual harassment from sixth grade boys was just a few months ago. I’m thirty-four.

From time to time I Skype with classrooms of readers. It’s a joy, for me. A way to connect with kids about reading and writing. Sometimes I show them my dog. Sometimes their questions stump or delight me. On this day, I read from my middle grade novel, Rules for Stealing Stars, answered thoughtful and funny questions about how I turn an idea into a book, and told the kids about my own childhood. There were some technical difficulties and we switched from Skype to Facetime. We laughed off the malfunction and I left the visit energized as usual. 

Within twenty minutes of the end of the session, however, my phone was ringing off the hook. A few confusing text messages came in, and I deleted them. Voicemails were left.

I recognized the area code as that of the school I had Facetimed with. So I listened to the messages. At first, I thought I was mishearing something. It sounded like a group of young boys laughing and saying…. Something.

A few more messages came in. I listened harder. Then I didn’t have to listen so hard, their voices grew clearer the later into the evening it became. Still, it was difficult to process what I was hearing. Sixth grade boys, telling me what they wanted to do to me. What they wanted me to do to them. Telling me to perform sexual favors, laughing as they told me to meet up later and have sex with them.

In the days following the phone calls, I thought a lot about the response I received for my middle grade novel, Rules for Stealing Stars, which is about sisters and magic and an alcoholic mother. Although many teachers and parents and librarians were thrilled to pass the book on to young readers, I also received a lot of resistance over the idea of a ten or eleven or twelve year old reading a story that included an alcoholic character.

In the days following the phone calls, I thought a lot about that disconnect.  In the race to preserve the innocence of children, are we turning a blind eye to their reality? I felt sadness for the kids that were being “protected” from my novel, but whose real lives might involve sexual harassment, and an actual (not a fictional) alcoholic or abusive parent, grief or fear or pain.

In February, when the boys wouldn’t stop calling me, I found myself more upset than I was prepared for. I called a friend to let her know I was running late for dinner, and I fell to pieces on the phone, having my first panic attack in years. There was something painful in a deep-down way about being in my thirties and having to experience the particular brand of sexual harassment that comes from sixth grade boys. I lost myself in the moment and returned to ten, eleven, twelve once again.

I felt small and apologetic and confused.

Then I remembered myself, and all the time that had passed from eleven to thirty-four. At eleven, I would never have told a teacher. At thirty-four, thinking of a classroom full of eleven year old girls who might be experiencing sexual harassment on a regular basis, I knew I had to.

The teacher was immediately responsive, unquestioning, and committed to taking action. Her genuine, clear response let me shake off those uncertain feelings of my sixth grade years. What happened was wrong. It wasn’t okay. And I was right for speaking up. For myself, and for anyone in the school that might be too scared or unsure to speak up themselves.

Thank you notes were eventually sent to me from the school. They were decorated with drawings in crayon and marker, in rainbow colors. Their handwriting was familiar—the writing of someone who is no longer new to words, but isn’t fully sure of themselves yet either. Stuck right in between childhood and adolescence. The age where the tough spots in the world are becoming more clear, but adults are still wanting to shield you from them.

I loved the thank yous. They were charming and kind and excited. They made my day feel meaningful.

But I was troubled by the apologies in each and every thank you note. Apologies not just from the kids who participated in the phone calls, which were necessary, but from the other students, on behalf of their classmates. I was troubled, most of all, that the girls’ notes included apologies on behalf of the boys. Saying they were sorry for the boys’ behavior. Saying they hoped I would forgive them.

My heart broke a little for those girls, who felt they had to apologize for actions that were not their own, for things that might be happening to them, for things they themselves are trying to understand and unpack and survive.

I’ve been that girl myself. I am often that woman. The one who apologizes for things that aren’t my fault. I have apologized for boys and men, I have apologized for the messiness of my own life, my family, my hopes and dreams and feelings, and on occasion, I have apologized for the content of my books.

But. I am writing for kids, and their lives aren’t uncomplicated, their lives aren’t pure or easy or totally innocent. I knew that before, from my own childhood, and I know that now, getting a glimpse of theirs.

For the kids I write for, for the kids who read my books, I won’t hope for them to be innocent and sweet and good. I will hope for them to be clear.

As clear as I felt when I called the teacher to tell her what had happened.

As clear as I felt when I said it had to be formally addressed, when I asked for action to be taken.

As clear as I feel today.

Clear enough to speak up, to say what they need, to stand up for themselves. Clear enough to apologize for the mistakes they make, and to refuse to apologize for the mistakes someone else makes.

And if my books give a little bit of that clarity? A little bit of that hope? Then I won’t apologize for them either.