One of my favorite teachers of all time, the late legendary Tom Dodd of Community High School in Ann Arbor, MI, was known for being inappropriate with students.
I don't mean he had sexual relationships with students, but a big part of what made him an institution and a student favorite was his overt, overwhelming impropriety. He flaunted his against-the-grain, outsider cache every day of his decades-long career. Stories of this behavior were legend throughout the school district. When a new, conservative dean was instituted at Commie High in the nineties, he responded by linking arms with a male colleague, kissing him on the mouth, and skipping from the room. A white-haired, mustachioed stutterer, he offered his classes advice like, “If you’re poor, marry someone rich. You don’t need any help being poor,” and, “If somebody is more upset by you saying ‘fuck’ than the content of your writing, their criticism belongs in the trash.” He was such an essential part of the school culture that his classes were crammed wherever a slot opened up in the curriculum. His most popular class, Creative Problem Solving, in different years served as an English, Science, Humanities, and even Math credit.
I considered myself lucky to find myself a place in this class at the start of my Freshman year. On the first day, he handed out blank sheets of paper, lumped us into small groups, and had us list all the things we could do with each paper. No matter how many ideas each group presented, he always had more. When we studied dream interpretation he encouraged students to nap—but with a caveat. Sleeping students must wake before the bell to recount their dreams for group analysis. On Freud day, students weren’t permitted in the room without a beard. He was funny and brilliant and inspirational and made me want to be a better student.
During the section on parliamentary procedure, our class structure was replaced with Robert's Rules of Order. That meant students got to vote for the "laws" that governed the class, with Tom acting as chair until a vote for formal leadership could be held. We began by establishing a number of reasonable rules-- mostly led by a senior named Megan. She was the sort of student Community High School was notorious for fostering; smart and creative and counter-cultural, she reeked of patchouli and dressed for a Phish concert rather than a classroom. But she was serious about her education and enthusiastic about the opportunities she could create through this experiment. She began putting forth proposals for class trips, service projects, and rules regarding the treatment of marginalized students.
This rankled a few of the less dedicated students, those who enrolled in a Tom Dodd class believing it would be an easy way to cushion their GPA—which, to their credit, it often was. A group of boys, juniors mostly, drafted a motion to ban Megan from proposing new legislation. One boy extended the motion. Another seconded, and after a brief debate, the motion passed. I voted nay, silently shocked at this censoring of a student who only wanted to further our education. But I didn’t speak up, I didn’t make a statement. I was a freshman, the boys were popular, and Megan was being annoying with her do-good-ing.
After that, all hell broke loose. Other girls, Megan’s friends in particular, were banned from proposing motions. The chaos was exciting, but unsettling. Tom Dodd reveled in it. "Look how quickly the democratic process can be s-s-s-subverted!" Our month-long exercise in Robert's Rules of Order culminated in a cigar party. Some of the boys brought in cases of cigars, and both Tom and the students smoked them out the classroom windows. Clouds of tobacco and marijuana filled the room. Designated lookouts were stationed in the hall and stairwell to ward off administrative staff, and warn Tom if somebody was coming to shut down the party.
I have never forgotten the glee with which those boys intentionally twisted a process intended to give us authority over our governance, banned Megan and her friends from participation, and eliminated the syllabus from the section’s curriculum.
However uncomfortable I was, I told myself this was only because I was a freshman, and didn’t know enough about the high school culture, teenaged expectations, or the social hierarchies of my environment to be at ease. The juniors were just having fun, right? They didn't realize they were doing anything stupid or dangerous. I told myself they were just boys, being boys. If they had no respect for a female senior it didn't mean they were bad people, teenaged boys are disrespectful in general, right? I assured myself it was how seventeen-year-old boys were supposed to act. I pushed aside my concerns of the unfairness of it, and accepted that this was the way things were.
Two months later the boy who seconded the motion to ban Megan from participating in the legislative process raped me at my first high school party. Ten days later, I tried to take my own life. I convalesced for nearly a month, and when I returned to school I spent all my time skipping class. Halfway through the spring semester, I dropped out of high school altogether.
I didn’t report the assault, not to my parents, the police, or to the school authorities. While reasons not to tell my parents came from wanting to spare them the heartbreak of my assault and my shame over my complicity, my silence with the school stemmed from my beloved teacher. He had proven to me he accepted aggressive, disrespectful behavior from my assailant. He had seen how malicious this young man was towards women, and he permitted it.
It is easy, so easy, for a vocal minority to seize control of a democratic process. That's the first and most important lesson I learned from our experiment with Robert's Rules of Order. It's a truth I've seen played out again and again and again in the "real" world, and particularly in the last ten years. And as soon as they've seized control, they can (and do) change rules to permit themselves whatever they want, to shut democracy out.
My second takeaway was that it didn't matter how qualified or well-intentioned a woman is. If she pisses off enough volatile men, they will come together to silence her.
Third, I learned that men who disrespect women in public are worse in private. If a man can stand up before his peers and target a woman, set himself above her for no reason other than a sense of entitlement to the space she occupies, what he does in spaces outside the public eye will be worse. Misogyny, bigotry of any sort, is like an iceberg. What you see is a tiny fraction of what is there.
I kept my notes from that freshman year class for ten years. After I embarked on a career where I relied on my creative problem-solving skills, in which I used them daily, I had committed every page of the syllabus and each piece of homework to memory. It wasn’t until I had lived through a second rape, through meeting and marrying a (wealthier) spouse, through his battle with brain cancer and buying our first home, that I finally discarded the notes from my abortive year of high school. I have often regretted throwing them away. And so the fourth lesson I learned is that sometimes, your high school to-do lists have critical importance on your adult life.
Lastly, I learned that no matter how much you might respect somebody, admire them, even love them, they can fail you. The roots of the problems that lead teenaged girls to suicide rather than ridicule are deep and tangled. I still consider Tom Dodd one of the greatest educators I’ve ever known. I still consider myself lucky to have been in that class. I put that education to work every day, solving problems for other survivors of sexual violence, other women who have been silenced.
People can change, but the past is permanent.
I still smell the smoke in the room. I still know when there’s fire.
This Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, please consider making a donation to an organization that helps survivors, like me, use their stories to make the world a safer place for all survivors.
Read more about advocating against sexual violence here: Rape is like Potty Training, and other lies from the comment section
Read my most recent post here: Let's talk about Joe Biden and unwanted touching, shall we?
Type your email address in the box and click the "create subscription" button. My list is spam-free, and you can opt out at any time.