“Hi. I’m Liz. Welcome to the team.” I extended my hand to the new Math teacher in our 7th grade teaching cluster.
“It’s so nice that I’ll be working with such a pretty young lady,” he responded. “I’m Mr. Dee.”
“Hardly young,” I said with a wan smile. I mean I was almost fifty and felt slightly embarrassed by his obvious pandering and empty compliments. The new teacher was no spring chicken himself, but rather a portly, florid faced fellow a good five to seven years older than myself. I was used to changing staff in our urban middle school. Middle school was not usually anyone’s final career destination. Young teachers used it as a stepping-stone to higher grades and older teachers usually had no patience for these young adolescents in the throes of acne, puberty, changing bodies and hygiene needs.
“And then the prostitute bent over and said ‘see anything you like?” As I walked down the corridor I caught the tail end of a joke Mr. Dee had just told and the 2 other male teachers on our team were chuckling. They straightened up and fixed their faces when they saw me. One had been my student teacher the year before and we had kind of mother/son relationship and he reached out often when he had a professional question. He seemed embarrassed as if I had ‘caught’ him doing something inappropriate and perhaps I had. The other was my long-time colleague and friend; we were Friday after-school drinks regulars and we had a mutual respect for one another.
“Uh oh. Busted by Ms. Henry,” said Mr. Dee with.. was that a smirk? “And may I say you’re looking lovely today,” he continued as he eyed me up and down. I felt uncomfortable and cringey. I gave a smile and a nod and continued to my classroom. Why did I feel like his eyes were boring into me as I walked away?
The team met every Monday to discuss any management issues, student behavior, upcoming field trips and events. Mr. Dee would often use that time to talk about his weekend on the Cape-where he ate and how much he drank. It was harmless banter that goes on in all meetings but he talked too much and issues at hand were often left unaddressed. A favorite topic of his was his wife and allusions to their sex life : “And when I rolled over in bed we wound up being late for Mass…” Nothing specific but it made me uncomfortable. As did his continued remarks on my appearance (‘your hair looks quite fetching today’) my attire (‘I love that blouse on you’) even my make up (‘great lipstick color.. very kissable’.) I felt violated and helpless at the same time.
Casual Fridays were jeans day. It was the day before Spring break and I had a shirt tucked into the waist of my Levis.
“Wow Ms. Henry! Those dungarees hug you in all the right places.”
“Really?” I sputtered. “C’mon. Can we not?…”
“Can’t you take a compliment?” he mocked.
As I walked away I could hear him..’Mm.. Mm..Mm.’ And that was it. The straw had broken this camel’s back.
I knocked on our principal’s door.
“Mr. Strand. I need to talk to you.” And I spilled it all to him, half outraged, half crying.
“I’ve never filed a union grievance Mr. Strand but if this continues I’m going to have to. I want to tell you first. I don’t know. Maybe I haven’t done enough. I should have addressed it a long time ago. But I was so embarrassed.”
He was solemn. “You’re not the first to complain Liz. Put this in writing. I’ll take care of it.”
This was over 20 years ago. Mr. Dee didn’t return in September. But-partly in honor of National Women’s Month-here’s my advice to my younger self: Speak up. Confront. Be assertive/aggressive/rude. Tell Mr. Dees everywhere.. shut the fuck up.