I was young. How young, I am not sure. I was still obsessed with drawing horses, which started in grade school and ended in junior high. Neither of my brothers were along on the trip, so at least nine years of age. Too young to understand, but old enough to know.
We were on a plane bound for California. I was going to Disneyland with my parents. The seats in first class came in twos. We were three.
Before settling into their seats near the front of the section, they walked me to the last row, double-checked the seat number, and smiled at the man who would share the flight with me. They introduced him to me, and explained how impossible it was to get three seats together. He assured them he would watch out for me, and see that I had everything I need.
And then some.
As the plane rumbled toward its runway, he asked me if I had flown before. I had. The takeoff pushed us back into our seats, and then lifted us light as a feather until we settled at a gentle climb through the clouds. The man helped me order a 7UP. I didn’t need help. I’d been flying since I was six. I was beginning to wish he would ignore me.
Once tedium set in, I pulled my carry-on from under the seat in front of me. Paper. Pencils. Erasers. I flipped past several sketches of horses to a clean page and began to draw. The man made small talk. He said my drawing was good. He asked to see my others.
I shared my work because I was a polite little girl who was taught to be polite to strangers. Not because I wanted to. Why couldn’t he just read a book or stare out the window or fall asleep? He asked if I had a horse. I didn’t. He asked what I liked about horses. I don’t remember what I answered. He asked if I had ridden a horse. I had. He asked if I liked how muscular they were. I did. He asked if I liked having all that power between my legs. And something seemed wrong.
Because I was a polite little girl who was polite to strangers, I answered this and the other questions he asked. He asked about the dog I had drawn. It was a miniature schnauzer. He was my dog, the one I was missing now. The one I wanted to be at home with more than I wanted to be on this flight to Disneyland. He asked if I ever had to scold my dog when he did something wrong. I did. He asked if I ever had to spank him. I said I did. He asked if I ever had to spank him so hard that my hand tingled afterward. Why did I say I did? I never hit my dog that hard. I loved my dog and barely brushed him away when I was angry with him. Why had I told him that? Why did the man enjoy that answer? Why wouldn’t he just leave me alone?
I put my artwork away and wished the plane would fly faster. My mom checked back with me. The man said everything was just fine. I begged her silently to switch places with me. But I was a polite little girl who never wanted to cause my parents any worry. The sun shone through the thin air above the clouds. When he spoke, he leaned in very close to me. I could smell his alcohol-laden breath.
He asked me if I knew my eyes were like shimmering pools of water. I didn’t.
I heard that somewhere before. It was on t.v., and grown-up men used those words when they wanted to be close to a woman. When they wanted to kiss her. When the scene faded out and went to commercial. I was so confused. This wasn’t like the boys in the neighborhood who tried to sneak a kiss and clumsily missed and hit my ear. It wasn’t the blushing, teasing, playful flirting of children. This was a man who was supposed to watch out for me. Someone my parents had trusted to help me.
I knew I was safe. This was a plane full of people. My parents were near. It was daylight. I would never see him again. But I felt violated. Right there in front of everyone, and they never knew it. No one heard me scream. No one reached out to pull me away from him. I had no marks to prove it.
As the plane opened up, we gathered our belongings. I wanted to push through the people to my parents. I wanted to leave that man behind. Mom and dad waited for me to reach their row. They told me to thank the nice man standing behind me. Because I was a polite little girl, I did. And then I just let him take my face with both hands and kiss my forehead. I let him put his lips on my face just like that.
When they spoke later of the nice man who accompanied me on the flight to California, I told my parents I didn’t like him. They told me to stop talking nonsense. When I said he was icky, I was told that he was a nice man and I shouldn’t talk that way about him.
And I never spoke of him again at all until I had children of my own. My message was this; if something doesn’t feel right, it isn’t. It doesn’t matter who believes you, or who the person is, or what authority they’ve been put in, or if they have actually done anything wrong. If you don’t like the situation, get out in any way you can. Talk until someone listens.
It so happened that one day in a group of young people, there was a man who all the girls agreed was creepy. Not just a little creepy. They had that feeling that I had that day on the plane. Something happened that they thought was wrong. And it would have been if it wasn’t the act of an ignorant man. My female co-leader and I thought they were crazy. What had happened was most likely a stupid mistake. And I still believe that.
But what I think doesn’t matter. What matters is that young girls felt something was wrong and there was someone who listened. I told them to make sure they didn’t find themselves alone with him. Not because I thought something would happen, but because it is very important they listen to that voice inside of them. The voice may be strong or a whisper. It may be right or it may be way off track, but it is important that they listen.
As adults we owe this to our children. And by our children, I mean any children; sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, friends’ children and those for whom we are leaders. Trust them. Listen to them. Believe them. Empower them.
Peace . . .