The Culture of Groping

The women next to us were stunning. Super-model on a magazine cover good-looking.

One, who I called Alice in my head, was in a sleek and snug crystal-colored dress that hugged her frame tightly. Her shoulders and upper chest were bare, showing off her impressive cleavage. Her arms were bare, her makeup light, and her hair pulled back into a simple ponytail. She danced effortlessly, arms in the air, eyes closed, hips swaying back and forth. Her handsome husband (both wore wedding rings) stood behind her, wearing a button-down shirt, dark pants, and a jacket. He looked like a Mafia-Man with slicked back hair, a strong jaw, and an amazing build. He watched Alice closely, delighting in her enjoying herself.

The other woman I named Prudence. She was like the hottest librarian I’d ever seen. Tight black sweater, gold necklace, horn-rim glasses, short black skirt, bobbed blonde hair. She danced against a man who must have been 7’1” (like actually this height, I’m not exaggerating), a man who looked like an oil baron of some kind. He danced against a pole and laughed loudly and made fun of the people around them. (“What’s grandma doing over there? You think she’d call the police if I accidentally knocked her down?”) Every time he stood up, the people behind him sighed in frustration, unable to see the stage.

I was there with three gay friends, in a busy 2nd floor concert bar called the Depot in Salt Lake City. The crowd was electric and diverse. Women in their sixties, girls in their late twenties with their reluctant boyfriends, gay men in their 40s, middle-aged lesbian couples, college students, people of every race. I was having a blast people watching. As the opening band finished their set, the club started to get busy, and everyone started to close in toward the stage, pressing against each other, in anticipation for the evening’s main entertainment, the woman they had spent $40 each to see tonight: Elle King.

I’d never been a fan of Elle’s, but I am always happy for new experiences and was thrilled to join my friends. Elle came out in a form-fitting black shirt, black pants held up with a belt and a giant gold belt buckle, and a pink cowboy hat. She had swagger, charisma, and a command of the stage. A few songs in to her set, I leaned in to my friend Cole and said, “I can totally see why you love her. She’s amazing!” There was a smokiness to her voice. She sang blues, old westerns. and love and hate songs, and all of them were delivered with a feminist bend. She sang with sheer girl power, unashamed, and the audience ate it up. I wasn’t liable to go buy her album, but I had to admit, she had some serious charisma and talent when she performed.

A few songs in, I was dancing back and forth near my friends when I felt a hand grab my ass. I turned around in shock and literally didn’t know who had done it. Then another hand grabbed my ass. I turned around and saw Alice, in the crystal-colored gown, smiling. “It wasn’t me!” she said. I raised my eyebrows. “Okay it was me the second time, but the first time, it was him!” She pointed to my other side, where a gay man with far too many piercings stood nearby. He winked. I sighed and turned around. Then another hand grabbed my ass.

I turned back around and Alice was right there. “It’s just so cute, I couldn’t help it!” Then she placed both of her hands on my chest and rubbed them over my shoulders and down my arms. “So good!” she yelled, and her husband started laughing behind her.

Over the next few minutes, Alice went on a groping spree. She grabbed Cole’s ass, then Tyler’s, then Josh’s. The she grabbed the ass of a girl nearby, and then the girl’s boyfriend. She turned around and grabbed the boobs of the woman standing behind her and yelled, “I’m having fun and I’m hot and I can do whatever I want!”

I watched the crowd react to her with curiosity, confusion, anger, and surprise. No one really said anything. Everyone smiled uncomfortably and kind of laughed it off. This gorgeous woman was grabbing everyone in the area as her husband laughed. It was some sort of game. She was pretty and drunk, so we will put up with her groping, we all silently agreed somehow. Alice eventually stopped and then returned to her husband, grinding against him as Elle continued to sing.

The gay man tried to grab my ass again and then pressed himself, but I distanced myself from him, delivering a clear non-verbal message that I wasn’t interested. I remembered a few months before in a club when another man had aggressively groped me in a club even after I told him no multiple times. Here I was in this safe space with a feminist artist, getting groped by a man and a woman both.

I thought about Alice and her groping spree, and how everyone just kind of laughed about it uncomfortably and shrugged it off, even though it was very uncomfortable for the most part. I thought of how the tables would turn if it was her husband grabbing people. Both the men and the women would be uncomfortable, outraged. A fight would likely break out. When he yelled, “I’m hot and I can do what I want!” as he grabbed a woman’s boob, he would likely get punched in the face and have the police called on him. Then I wondered how the crowd might respond if they considered her less attractive, or if she wasn’t there with her husband watching over her. How would the other women on dates react? What about the single men?

I realized this was likely rare in clubs, this thing where women groped other men. This woman was clearly drunk and determined to enjoy herself, and she clearly thought it was okay. Gay men grope other gay men far more frequently in clubs and bars. And straight men group women everywhere and seemingly always: women dealt with this at work, at bus stops, in restaurants, while shopping. I can’t imagine. I was feeling violated and impatient after these few encounters. What must it be like for them?

I started to relax a bit, even as the crowd jostled and pushed around me, getting more drunk. The music was good, and I let my body sway with the bass line and enjoyed the people watching. Twenty minutes or so passed, then I felt a hand at my neck. Fingers gripped the collar of my T-shirt, then, before I could even turn around, I felt freezing water pour down my shirt, followed by a few jagged ice cubes. My shirt was tucked into my shorts, and I felt the ice land at my waistline and stop there. As I turned around, I was already untucking the shirt to let the ice fall free to the floor.

My anger spiked as I turned around, already thinking I was glad it was water and not alcohol that had been poured on me. I expected to see the grop-y gay man behind me, but instead I saw Alice. She was holding her plastic cup, now empty, and she was giggling with delight, like she had played the best joke on me. Behind me, her husband was laughing hysterically, as were Prudence and the giant. I was not amused, and I let my anger out in a soft but stern tone, unfiltered.

“What. The. Fuck. You grab me, you grope my friends, repeatedly. You grope everyone around you and think it’s funny. It’s not fucking funny. And now you are fucking pouring ice down my back! Bitch, you don’t know me. Back the fuck off!”

I watched Alice grow pale and back away from me. I hadn’t threatened her or advanced on her, but she knew I was very, very angry. Her husband ushered her behind him and put an arm out toward me to hold me off, although I hadn’t moved. Behind me, the crowd still danced to Elle’s music.

“Hey, whoa, man, back off,” he said.

“Reign her in, dude,” I said with derision. “I didn’t fucking deserve that.” And he quickly moved her away.

I had a hard time enjoying myself after that. I was far too sober for this. I got jostled a bit more by the crowd, but no one else was groping. The wet streak down my back was cold at first, but then just stayed wet and took time to dry. When I lose my temper like that, I immediately get sad and angry at myself. I regretted what I had said, especially the word ‘bitch’, which I try to avoid at all costs. I could have said fewer words and delivered my message effectively. But I also had a right to be angry. The groping had been too much, but the ice water was way over the line.

I drove home thinking of lofty terms like feminism and consent, feeling free and feeling safe. I had been having such a nice time before all that, and the admission had been expensive. I hadn’t asked for that, and it wasn’t warranted.

A few days later, I attended a party with a group of gay men, and told this story. Several of them shared stories about straight women going to gay clubs and groping the gay men while dancing and drinking. Women grinding up on them, women grabbing their hands and placing them forcibly on their breasts, women unzipping their pants. Yet when I asked them, the men each admitted they’d been groped by other men at the clubs far more frequently. It was just that the attention from other men was generally more wanted due to the attraction. And they all agreed that women likely deal with this much more frequently.

I’m left with a lot of thoughts after this experience, but I’ll close with this:

Alice, wherever yo are, I bet you’re a really cool person. You like Elle King, and you can definitely dance, and you seem to have great friends. I bet we could have some fascinating conversations. I bet you deal with a lot of sexual harassment in your day to day life. And I bet it is almost universally unwelcome. Just recognize that I celebrate your  right to go out and have drinks. But if you want to grope someone, or pour ice down their back, stick to the people you know. Because you left me feeling violated and angry. Your actions kind of ruined my night. I had a right to be there just as much as you did. And no matter how hot you think you are, you don’t get to just do what you want. You’re responsible for yourself even when you’re drinking. Actions have consequences, and I was your consequence that night. This is an era where politicians are being removed from office for behavior like this, and you aren’t a TSA agent.

I’ll keep my hands to myself. You do the same. And let’s start changing the world around us by starting with ourselves. My sons learned this rule in the first grade. Let’s apply this rule to grown-ups, too.

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Held Back

“Well, to be honest, Chad, I don’t really know your son.” She turned her chair toward me, her hands in her lap, a smile on her face. She’d kept me waiting outside the office for an extra ten minutes while she’d helped a couple of ten-year old girls brush through their hair, the girls having dropped in at the start of the school day unannounced, giggling. She clearly adored her students.

“I wouldn’t expect you to. There are hundreds of students here.”

Amy kept her lips pulled back over her teeth as continued the perma-smile. “But let me restate what you asked me, to see if I got this right. Your son A, who is 6, has struggled emotionally somewhat in his first grade classroom, largely because he is one of the youngest students in the room, but he seems to be fine academically, right? His birthday is in late July? And now that the teacher is recommending holding him back to repeat the first grade for the next year, you are wondering if this recommendation is legitimate? And that’s why you wanted to meet with me, the school principal?”

I nodded, feeling strangely defensive despite the fact that she was kind and calm in her presentation. “Yes. It’s a bit more complicated than that, and there are a lot of details behind all this, but, yes, that is basically my question.”

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“Well,” she leaned back in her chair, “given our education methods here as a Waldorf style school, it wouldn’t be uncommon for a teacher to recommend holding a child back. As you probably know, we focus our education on the individual children, and what might be best for them. If a child is struggling behaviorally or emotionally, and they don’t seem to be on par with the rest of the students, then it is common to talk to the parents about the possibility of repeating a year so that the child can have a more consistent learning environment, one more suited to their individual needs.”

I furrowed my brown in frustration. “Wait, wait. ‘It wouldn’t be uncommon…’ Does that mean this is a regular recommendation? You are suggesting to many parents that they hold back their children to repeat a grade?”

Amy clicked her tongue and looked troubled. “Well, it isn’t as if we have a quota to fulfill. But in Wasatch learning environments, we focus on skill levels like integrating the five senses, handwork, hand-eye coordination, and–”

“Miss Lee, I’m sorry for interrupting, but I know about Waldorf learning. I enrolled my kids here. I don’t mean to be adversarial, but I feel as if sixty per cent of my conversations with professionals here are about the Waldorf learning method. I’m not here about that, I’m here about my son. I want to understand how holding him back would benefit him.”

The smile returned. “Well, let’s look at your terminology first of all. Listen to how negative it sounds. ‘Holding him back.’ Could I invite you to switch the words around to realize how much more positive you could make it sound? Let’s try this. Instead of using the words ‘holding him back’, why not try, ‘Let’s give A the gift of another year of childhood among his emotional peers, to provide the best and most effective learning method for his needs, rather than pushing him forward into an arena in which he is not equipped to handle?”

I glowered in frustration, and my tone took on a bit of sarcasm. “Let me turn that right back on you, regarding your terminology here. Can I invite you to switch your words? Instead of ‘pushing him forward’, why not try, ‘Let’s give A the gift of staying among his established peer group, in his ongoing classroom learning environment, rather than holding him back in an arena with a new peer group and covering material he has already effectively learned?”

Amy bit her lip, considering my unexpected words, and I kept talking.

“And honestly, I came in here to discuss concerns, and I feel like you are advocating for holding my child back when you began our conversation by admitting that you aren’t at all familiar with him! How do you know what he is ‘equipped to handle?” I noticed my voice had risen a bit, in both volume and passion, and I took a deep breath calming myself.

“I apologize.” Amy’s voice was soft, placating. “Let’s start again. Tell me your concerns.”

My words rushed out quickly. I explained how A had struggled emotionally in kindergarten the year before, being the youngest in the classroom, and how his teacher, though well-intentioned, had responded to his small outbursts by putting his name on the board and taking away privileges. “So his mom and I brought him here, to a new and more supportive learning environment, where he might thrive better. The learning environment here, with gardening, knitting, and story-telling in the classroom, is so much better suited to his personality. We love it here for him.” I talked about how A’s teacher was loving and supportive, but how she frequently provided behavioral reports on A that focused solely on his negative struggles and none of his strengths. “For the first two months of school, A wasn’t eating school lunches, and she never told us, so of course he was struggling with outbursts every day, he was super hungry. Since we have been packing his lunches, his behavioral struggles have dropped significantly.”

I saw Amy jotting notes on a pad of paper. “Besides,” I went on, “despite his struggle in the classroom with transitions, such as from recess back to classroom activities, and despite the fact that he picks up material slightly slower than the other, older, kids, he is thriving academically and making major strides. He learns on his level, at his speed. Five months ago, we had a parent/teacher meeting to discuss his concerns in the classroom, and every one of those concerns is no longer a factor. The teacher told us that herself, on the same day that she recommended holding him back.”

Amy nodded. “And why is it that you feel so strongly against having him repeat a grade?”

I breathed deep again, slowing my words. “That just feels like it should be a last resort, not a common recommendation. I’m a clinical social worker, and I regularly meet with kids who are behaviorally or emotionally disturbed. I’ve done this for over a decade. And in all my time, when I see a kid struggling in the classroom, I’ve never recommended that they be held back. Instead, I see help the teachers and parents come up with a learning strategy that helps the kids succeed where they are. An individualized education plan, with strategies in place during times of trouble. I also talked about this with my mom. She was an award-winning first-grade teacher for over twenty years. She had kids in her classroom who didn’t speak English, who were in extreme poverty, who had major anger issues, who had developmental disabilities, and who had extreme difficulties with hygiene.  She couldn’t recount cases where she recommended holding a child back as a first line of strategy, particularly a kid like A who is already doing so well academically, and who has so much support at home.”

Amy looked up from the page where she’d taken a few notes. “To be honest, when we have kids who have long-term struggles, perhaps an Autism diagnosis or a significant developmental struggle, we wouldn’t recommend they be held back. Those are cases where an individualized education plan would be more actively recommended.”

I felt my frustration boil over again. “So kids who are actively struggling stay where they are, but kids who have minor struggles are recommended to repeat a grade! I am sorry, but that is infuriating!”

There was silence as Amy considered my words. She nodded, jotting another note. “Okay, the key difference here is that the teacher feels a certain way and you have reservations. That is fine. It is only a recommendation. Normally if a parent disagrees, we would simply advance the child forward. But in this case, your kid’s child’s mother, who has primary custody, feels like holding A back is the best plan for him. And in cases where one parent disagrees from the other, we have to follow the primary custodial parent.”

I nodded several times, ignoring the anguish in my gut over all of this. “I will work out co-parenting concerns directly on my own. But I do want to have a clear understanding of why this recommendation has been made for my son. Was protocol followed? Did he get the help he needed this year? What are the costs and benefits of holding him back versus having him move forward?”

Amy reasoned with me. “I’m a mom, too. And I  can see how much you love our son. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to feel like you don’t get a say, or that you aren’t being considered.”

“I had a nightmare a few days ago,” I told her. “I pictured taking my sons to the first day of school this coming year. They were in their new clothes, with new backpacks full of new supplies, with fresh haircuts and huge smiles on their faces. We take J, my older son, to his class in fourth grade and wish him well for a new year. And then we take A back to the first grade class, and he turns to us, tears in his eyes, and asks why we are having him do first grade over again.” I paused, clearing the image from my head. “In reality, he’ll likely be fine no matter what. But I also worry about years down the line, when he explains to others that he was held back as a kid. This becomes a permanent part of his story from here forward. If it is right for him, then I’m all for it. But I just can’t understand the pressure I feel to hold him back when it doesn’t feel right. I don’t understand why we are even having this conversation. I see him as succeeding right where he is. He’s beautiful, smart, creative, compassionate, and a leader. He’s already a huge success.”

The teacher shook my hand and showed me out. I walked through the school with a nervous feeling in my heart, to the sounds of children playing in classrooms all around me. And, with the thought of all of the parents out there advocating for their children to succeed, I felt my love for my children expand within me, occupying a larger space than ever before, something I never thought possible.

Pokemon Shaming

Poke Ball

“Your son is a beautiful child. He’s just so emotionally young, the youngest in his class by far.”

Mrs. Barnes pulled out a folder A, my 6 year old son, had made, and placed it on the table. It was full of his artwork and assignments.

“We instructed each child to draw a cover for their personal folders. Many children drew their families or farm animals or a picture of Earth. But look at what your son drew here.”

I looked at the cover and saw a huge green dragon, covered in spike, breathing fire. The dragon had a fierce expression on its face and its wings were spread wide. A had drawn it in crayon.

“It’s a dragon!” I said, with a hint of excitement in my voice. “One of his best, I’d say. He’s practiced hard.”

Mrs. Barnes nodded. “Well, yes, but we don’t really do dragons in this school. We try to stick to realism. All of the children are asked not to wear cartoons on their shirts and to not have screen time during the week, no television or video games. I know you are doing your best to abide by that, but everything for A must be an adventure, an epic quest. Everything is story-telling to him.”

I nodded, struggling to understand the concerns. “A is my storyteller. He’s brilliant. He remembers details and puts together elaborate adventures. He loves when small creatures save the day, Lord of the Rings style. He is also a bit like Hagrid in Harry Potter in that he has particular affection for the most ferocious of creatures. I do understand that he is emotionally young. He hates transitioning from one thing to the next, he hates eating vegetables, he hates coloring within the lines. But he only turned 6 in July, and school started in September. Many of the kids in his classroom turned six several months or even almost a full year before him. He’s the smallest guy in the classroom, and he’s obsessed with everything being fair and balanced.”

Mrs. Barnes smiled, nodding and taking a few notes. “You certainly know your child well. Here at the charter school, we try many activities that focus on the five senses, healthy play, and physical movement, while putting them through the education. It is a wonderful method of learning. Here, the children plant plants in gardens, they learn about animals and mythology, language skills, hand-eye coordination, plants and culture.”

“I love your methods here. I have loved it for my sons and they love it also,” I said honestly.

“But A is really struggling. He takes a longer time to adapt than the other kids. Particularly in the afternoons, and especially during transitions. It takes a long time to get him to focus on tasks that he isn’t already good at. He takes a lot more attention than the other kids. And that’s okay, because we want to individualize the educational process for each child. But that is why we called this meeting, so we could strategize ways to help your child succeed.”

An older woman sat to the left of Mrs. Barnes, likely in her mid-60s. She was thin and wore a blue skirt and a dark blue top, both of which fit her well but were somehow billowy at the same time. Her hair was gray. She had discerning eyes and had been listening to every word carefully.

“Chad, I’m Meadow,” she said, extending a hand. “I haven’t actually met your son, but I’m one of the founders of this school.” Over the next several minutes, she analyzed A’s artwork, showing me how he was struggling with complex concepts. If he was shown a coloring technique, like say making a tree trunk with a broad stroke using a chalk-like crayon, he would instead take a regular crayon and draw the outline of the tree, then shade it in. She reviewed many of these concepts, and talked about methods in the classroom to help him, and ways we could practice techniques at home to reinforce expectations.

“He is a beautiful child, like all children are beautiful. Why don’t you tell me about these adventures A loves? Where does he get these concepts?”

I proceeded to tell her about a typical afternoon with my sons. “They will choose to be some kind of animal or creature, and we go on epic quests all around the park, or swimming pool, or neighborhood. They have to collect pine cones on the hill, solve riddles to pass the old witch, find a little girl hiding in a park, dig for rocks, and create potions to save the world. A is very focused on fights, like Batman or Spider-Man style, so I always try to incorporate physical activity. He loves pretending to have super powers, so instead of laser eyes or giant fists, I try to give him powers to change colors or grow plants or see through things, and help him use his reasoning skills to get through the quests. He adapts well. It gives us a lot of ground to work from, and it is fun quality time with him. We do things like this often.”

Meadow clicked her tongue. “So he gets his story-telling from you and your interactions?”

“I’d say so.” I was smiling.

“And yet he is obsessed with adventures.”

“Well, growing up, he has had a healthy diet of kids’ cartoons. He loves super heroes. He loves Pokemon.”

“See? That.” Meadow had a disappointed look on her face. “Pokemon. He needs less Pokemon and more time outdoors. Children his age need to milk cows and slop pigs. They need to count sticks and smell pine trees and dip their toes in the water. They need to jump over rocks and learn how to catch themselves if they fall. They need what children in previous generations had.”

I was nodding, enthusiastic. “I love all of these ideas. And I’m definitely open to them.”

Prairie looked me right in the eyes. “And yet someone introduced him to Pokemon in the first place.”

There was a heavy silence in the room, filled with awkward tension, and I felt she had just told me that I’m abusing my child. She kept eye contact with me as I felt ashamed briefly. My brow furrowed in confusion. Suddenly, I was angry, but I kept it tightly contained. What kind of name was Meadow anyway?

The meeting continued and we discussed strategies to keep A invested in the classroom, to practice skill-sets at home, and particularly to help him with transition times in the classroom.

Mrs. Barnes turned toward me just at the end of the meeting. “Oh, and I forgot to tell you. A isn’t eating the school lunches. I’ve tried but we just can’t get him to eat. He just kind of picks at his food. I meant to send you an Email weeks ago, but I’ve been busy with work and family. Maybe you should pack him a lunch from now on.”

And then I was furious. “He’s been telling me that he’s been eating. But if he isn’t eating, no wonder he is struggling! When he doesn’t eat, he acts more like a young 4 year old than a child his age.  His cheeks get red and he can’t focus! He needs food! He’s been super hungry when he gets home but I thought that was normal!”

Mrs. Barnes placated me. “Yes, well, let’s have you pack a lunch for him from now on and see if that makes a difference. Pick foods that he likes that can sustain him.”

I walked away from the meeting, a mixture of determination, embarrassment, gratitude, and rage. A woman who had never met my child clearly had very strong feelings about Pokemon, and another who knew him well had failed to mention that my child wasn’t eating, and failed to connect that to his struggles.

The next day, I packed A a lunch, and when I picked him up from school, Mrs. Barnes commended him on how well he had done with transitions that day. Then A and I went home and played. We jumped in the backyard, we smelled leaves, we gathered sticks, we climbed a hill, we watched the sun and clouds.

Then we went home and watched Pokemon.