Is it What it Appears to be?

A substitute teacher enters a high school through an out-of-the-way doorway. The halls are empty because it is more than an hour before school begins. (S)he stops next to a vending machine and orients him or herself as (s)he had never been in the building before.

As (s)he steps from the blindside of the machine in search for the main office, a nearby classroom door opens and a tall boy, who looks more like a college student than a high schooler, emerges. A petite woman, thirtyish perhaps, in a mini skirt and high heels, follows him. The young man glances around the hall, apparently without noticing the semi-hidden witness and faces the woman. “Love you,” he says and bends over and kisses her on the forehead. He dashes away, backpack bouncing behind him, at a pace later described as “getaway guilt.”

The woman turns to the classroom, briefly adjusts her skirt and blouse, and enters.

How do you interpret this situation? What would you do?

A high school teacher is observing a pep assembly.  A senior boy the teacher does not know, with whom (s)he has never interacted, is representing his class in a competition. The teacher casually comments to a fellow staff member that every time (s)he sees Jake in the halls, (s)he thinks, “That kid is so ready for college. Look how he presents himself. And he always has a pencil perched behind his ear.” The speaker pauses. “And when he gets to be about 25, he’s going to be one handsome man.”

The other teacher, a woman, gasps. “I can’t believe you said that!” she says with a combination of shock and disgust.

The “offending” teacher is called into the principal’s office the next day. The administrator tells the teacher that (s)he will no longer be serving as advisor of two student groups, that replacements have already been found. “I am so disappointed in you,” the principal says. “How could you sexualize a student like that?”

How do you interpret this situation? What would you do?

A high school staff member is in the halls during class time. A girl comes toward her/him. The teacher does not know the girl, but knows she is a prominent student leader. The girl is 5’7″ to 5’9″ tall, slender, with skin reflecting her East African heritage. She has big, alert eyes, delicate lips, and cheekbones that a person who never notices cheekbones would notice.

From the first time the adult saw her, (s)he thought the student could become a successful fashion model. Her face, (s)he thinks, is a palette any designer, cosmetologist, or modeling agency would want to employ. If she is more interested in academics, the staff member thinks, she could model in college to pay for her education. The adult knows people who modelled while in college, juggling the two worlds, until they graduated and were ready to utilize their education and degree. But (s)he does not know the young girl, so (s)he says nothing.

Until that day.

On an impulse, without thinking, the thoughts that have repeated in the staff member’s head for months, spew out as the student approaches. Only they come out wrong. “Hey, you should be a model,” (s)he blurts, realizing (s)he needs to explain her/his intentions. The girl reacts with understandable surprise as the adult had never spoken to her before. Her look did not reflect disgust with the question or its implications.

Before any other words can be exchanged, a young teacher, a woman, rounds the corner. She has heard the awkward, ill-phrased words. She sees the surprised look on the girl’s face and calls the adult’s name loud enough for Tyra Banks to hear, wherever she is. She spits it out as if the adult had asked the girl to come to a strip club for a job interview. The teacher turns her back on the embarrassed staff member, focuses on the girl, and asks with a nurturing sympathetic voice, “Are you OK?”

How do you interpret this situation? What would you do?

Would your interpretations and actions be different if the person were male or female, straight or gay, near retirement or fresh out of college?

I offer these scenarios and pose these questions in the aftermath of Andrew Cuomo’s resignation as governor of New York State, the result of numerous sexual harassment complaints against him. His situation appears to be clearer than those above. That also is true of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior charges against many men, and women, in power, such as Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Harvey Weinstein, Mary Kay Letourneau, Congresswoman Katie Hill, and Kevin Spacey.

But not all incidents are what they appear to be. For example, in the first example cited above, the thirtyish appearing teacher actually was fortyish…and the boy’s mother.

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