When I was a freshman in highschool, I went to my first school dance. This was a notably bigger deal than other high school dances because I attended an all-girls school. It followed that such events were weighted with the expectation of serving as proxy for most of the necessary rites of passage denied with the normalcy of a co-educational school.
None of the few close friends that I had freshman year wanted to go, so I decided to meet up with a few other friends that I knew would want to attend. Unlike most of my peers who also had grown up in an urbanized-suburb of NYC, most of my weekends up until that point had revolved exclusively around the notably rural pastimes of church with my mother on Sundays and outdoor excursions hiking, hunting or fishing with my brother, father and dog on Saturdays. As a result, I was pretty ignorant about what to expect of a high school dance or even how to dress for one.
Entirely inexperienced in doing anything for the male gaze, so I wore what I liked: a short skirt made of a light, thin fabric that bounced when I walked and flared opened like a top if I was to twirl (I thought there might be twirling involved?), a headband (I feel nauseous writing this…lmao) and a striped grey and white shirt. My dad offered to drive me, which I must have been against, but given the dance was on a Friday night, my mother was likely at church and not around to drive me.
When I arrived, I had some difficulty finding my “friends” in the hordes of hundreds of people, but I was so antsy not to be seen getting out of my dad’s truck, I demanded he all but make a rolling stop, allowing me to jump out the car so quickly that it wouldn’t be certain if that truck rumbling in the distance had even dropped me off. Relax, Jas. my dad said, obstinate, as he pulled the car to a park. Just call if you want to go home and I’ll come get you.
OK, I said, thinking how he always said this whenever I went anywhere because he secretly didn’t want me to go anywhere and just stay home. I didn’t turn to watch him drive away.
This particular dance had a theme that I don’t remember by name, but was something along the lines of unifying the first first dance and last first dance of the freshman and seniors. A “Freshman & Seniors”-themed dance was the type of willful ignorance (or complicit predation) only be achievable through the characteristic oblivion of the modern Catholic Church. I remember this theme for two reasons: my parents absolute confusion by it, and secondly, noticing the difference between the freshmen and seniors when I arrived.
The physical difference between freshman and seniors was dramatic. While puberty had hit some of the attendees early, most of the freshman boys were still short and bare-faced, the girls, flat-chested and square. Most striking was the appearance of the senior boys many who, by this time in their lives, looked like men. Many dwarfed their femme counterparts: over six-feet tall, acne and choppy beards replacing fresh-faced days of old, newfound comfort in a six-inch growth spurt, a few already balding.
I was not as confident back then as I am now, so arriving at a place alone made me incredibly nervous. I scanned the crowd desperately for a familiar face and each unfamiliar, made-up face my brain processed, left me feeling more and more nervous. I squinted, making a mental note to ask Mommy to take me to the eye doctor to get a new prescription the next day. More faces I didn’t recognize. Shit, one I did recognize and certainly didn’t want to approach so I turned the other way. I grew more nervous. Should I have worn makeup? Should I buy some make-up?
Finally! A face I knew well. I went over, excitedly, almost too excited, to leave my aloneness behind and was embraced by the type of performative friendship that could only be achieved by a drunk Catholic school girl. I wasn’t as cynical as I am now, so I hadn’t considered she was anything less than very happy to see me. As drunk bitches do, after saying hello, she promptly disappeared and I was alone again. Presuming safety in familiarity, I gravitated toward the one black girl. I thought she and her friend might be nice when they “complimented” my outfit, but when I tried to meet their eyelines as I spoke they looked distractedly over my head. Briefly, I wondered if there was something in my hair, or if it was something genuinely exciting was floating in the space above my head, like a hawk, flying low and over the heads of the crowd. I let this go on and eventually, disappointedly resolved that they might be ignoring me and worst of all, and there was nothing to see above my head but other desperate teens trying to pile into the giant gym. I left them, hoping that after waiting patiently on the line, I would, in no time, be let in and find some other person inside that I knew.
Once again, I found myself nervously standing alone, and feeling a hand on my head, make its way down my back, gentle the way you might touch-
…a puppy, the voice said.
I turned around.
Awww…she’s so cute…like a puppy, a guy so tall I had to crane my neck up to look at said, still petting me. I smiled in thanks, if it was a compliment, but wished he would stop touching me, wished he would look at me the way one would look at a puppy because I had never seen someone look at a puppy the way he looked at me. He called his friends and suddenly now there were three more, maybe basketball players because of how tall they were, all looking at me that same way, that was not a way one looked at puppies.
Your hair is so soft… he said again, his hand sliding from the top of my head down to my neck.
Nearly choking, I managed to say Stop, that I didn’t want to be touched. Amused or frustrated, another friend tried to “feel” my head, the other flipped up the hem of my skirt I wore that opened like a top when I spun, that caught like leaves in a breeze.
Oh, there’s my friend, I said to no one in particular, imitating the way the girls had looked over the heads in the crowds as if they were tall grasses and I sped-walked away, my heart, for reasons that I didn’t understand, pounding.
Desperate now, I left the line to get to the front of it, the front devolving into a crowd, then, from a crowd to a mob that forced itself through the double-doors. I spotted another girl I knew, who grabbed my arm and pulled me into its form, the inertia barely letting my feet touch the ground.
A Catholic high school dance was, apparently, a means for horny, rhythmless teenagers to rub on each other for two or three hours, give kisses and handjobs, and then go home.The room was dark save for a few “party lights” that were the stage light trees from the theatre, stationed circularly around the room, flashing green and white lights making the gym look dually like the inside and outside of a UFO. The mob of individual teens had morphed into a sexually-frustrated, thousand-armed alien rotating in the center of the dance floor. Unconcerned with the music’s rhythm, the alien-mass pulsed and shivered to their own beat, absorbing and spitting out teen sacrifices. I orbited around it, wondering how, when, and if I should enter.
I couldn’t hide my disappointment at this “dance”. There was no real dancing, no punch, no snacks, no hawks over my head stealing the attention from the girls I tried to befriend. And worst of all, I was now on edge because I was terrified of running into the guy that kept trying to pet my head. Distracted by my reflections, I stopped paying attention and felt a tug at my arm and when I looked-, of course,! the same tall frame of the man from the line. Annoyed, I walked out of his grip looking forward, the same way one might when walking in the woods and your shirt is snagged on a thorn, his grip so strong that it pinched when I was freed. I added another item on my list of the night’s missions: find a “friend” or “friends”, avoid that guy. I orbited the mass again, a third time. There were too many tall frames to distinguish one from the other and all of a sudden, I felt very alone and very afraid.
Alone, I left.
I stood outside of the building, teary-eyes transforming to complete tears. I texted my dad who, as if he was waiting for my call, immediately responded he was on his way. As I was waiting (the school was at least 25 minutes from my house), an older girl tabling the party asked concernedly if I was okay. I told her I was fine, and, horribly embarrassed, wanted to be left alone. She looked uncomfortable, and I told her abruptly that I “didn’t want to be touched anymore” and asserted my ride was coming. When I saw a car in the distance, I lied and said “that’s my dad,” exhaling when she went back inside. Hoping to avoid the painful situation of talking to another person, I went further away from the building toward the parking lot, beneath the single lot light, where I impatiently called my dad over and over, hoping he was on his way.
I was hysterical by the time I got in the car. Baffled, my dad asked over and over again What happened? Jas? And I just said nothing, shaking my head, not responding. Finally, I managed: I didn’t like it…I didn’t want to stay.
My dad who may have for the first time at that moment realized he was raising a teenage girl said, It’s okay, Jas…you didn’t like it, so you left.
My parents, especially my father, never taught me to sacrifice my comfort or safety for someone else’s. He had taught me this lesson with a story that for a while I thought was cruel; he had a cousin much bigger than him and once, when that cousin was drowning in the pool, although he could swim, he stood by the side and watched, until help could come. “I wasn’t going go in there to try to help her,” he said, “She would have killed me.” “That’s mean, Daddy,” I would say and he would simply reply, “No, Jas, I have a high sense of self-preservation.”
And he was right. Since then, since that party, I’ve had no problems leaving. My friends, colleagues, strangers can attest. I’ve left parties, part-time jobs, hookups, networking events, volunteering obligations for reasons that fundamentally could be boiled down to any one or a combination of: I didn’t like it. I didn’t feel safe. I didn’t want to stay.
My parents never taught me to be particularly “polite”, or I should say, “accommodating.” Already blessed with a “nice” child, they knew the world’s return on niceness and accomodation, specifically for black girls. So instead of politeness, they taught me to take care of myself, to be weary of people that want to abuse that kindness, and most importantly, never to remain in an uncomfortable or dangerous situation to preserve someone else’s feelings. This education started with men and strangers (male strangers, honestly) and ended with friends, employers, service providers. At its worst, accommodation has its hand in putting women particularly in compromising situations.
Subscribing to the politics of accommodation, will leave you bending yourself out of shape for the benefit of others in ways that often would not be reciprocated. I had to become okay with potentially “inconveniencing” someone because the situation that I elected to help them with became toxic or simply unpleasant for me.
My parents’ encouragement and support of my leaving has instilled in me a sense of self-respect and agency over my own life and choices for which I am consistently and increasingly grateful. I like to consider myself flexible and compassionate, but not to be taken for granted: I do what I want. I have long since disregarded the opportunity cost of simply “missing out.” Every day I become more and more confident in my ability to make choices for my benefit, to consider, primarily, my happiness, my health, and my safety before the anything of anyone else.
This was the power in learning to leave: an education in protecting myself.