Stance | Dear Pelham
A letter to an old school that failed its female students
I’ve been meaning to write to you for a while. I wish I could say that my lack of communication is due to my busy, fast-paced lifestyle, but it isn’t. The reason I haven’t raised my voice until now is because I didn’t want to. Raising my voice meant that I’d have to relive the years we spent together. Raising my voice meant that I would have to immerse myself in the memories — mostly negative — of the four years I had to stay with you. But now? Now I’m at a point where I think you need to be held accountable for what you did to me, and every other person who wasn’t a white male. Let’s cut the shit Pelham, you fucked up.
You know, a part of me doesn’t always blame you for what happened, because you had a sadistic tyrant to steer you. I’ll call him Mr Boss. The man’s man. Blood-shot eyes, peppered hair and a moustache to match. The poster-boy for heteronormative masculinity. And in my memory, he’s the poster-boy for belittling every woman to step into his domain. He made us feel stupid, weak and generally pathetic. Do you remember that day in 2005? I’m pretty sure you do. We were sitting in assembly, bums numb and losing circulation in our legs. Mr Boss liked to think himself a democratic man, allowing pupils some time at the end to raise grievances and pitch ideas. Three grade 7 girls stood up awkwardly. The stares from the rest of the kids fixated on the girls, willing them to burst into flames like ants under a magnifying glass.
“Sir, we’d like to start a girls soccer team,” they squeak.
Mr Boss stares, and then smirks. His smile was always off-putting. “Answer this question for me,” he states. “Do you want to be girls or boys?”
“Now tell me. Is soccer for girls?” he asks, arrogantly.
What else were they supposed to say? Have you ever had your identity questioned like that, in front of an entire hall of judgemental pre-teens and teachers? In that moment I realised that being a girl at Pelham was not in my favour.
I am 22 years old and I still think about these things. What you did has a long-lasting effect, and you deserve to know.
But Mr Boss didn’t work alone, we both know that. Cue the PE teacher. Let’s call him Mr Creep. Mr Creep did the dirty work. He ‘taught’ classes everyday, so he always had close interactions with us. He was close enough to get us where it really hurt. I think swimming was the most traumatic time, especially if you had a vagina. My grade 6 and 7 years were the worst. My body was developing and it freaked me the fuck out. Most girls at this age are in a state of shock — we don’t know who we’re turning into, no matter how many sit-down chats we have with our parents. To top it off, some of us had our periods.
Okay, now put all of that together and imagine yourself wearing a tight, black one-piece costume, standing on the ledge of the pool for everyone to see. Your nipples are raised, they may as well be bulls-eyes on your chest. Your pubic hair is sprouting from the sides of your costume, and your first stretchmarks are making an appearance. Would you feel comfortable? I certainly didn’t. But that wasn’t the worst part. It was worse if you weren’t on that ledge.
To get out of PE you had to have a letter written by your parents stating why.
“Dear Mr Creep,
Please excuse *insert name here* from PE class today. She has her period.”
Humiliating right? Normally there’d be an awkward glance and the letter would be tucked away, as if it never even happened. Mr Creep liked to mix it up though. Every now and then he liked to let everyone know exactly what the note said. Like a dramatic reading, if you will. To him, periods and general development was a joke. Neither of them saw us as real people with real feelings and real experiences. To be undermined and humiliated like that is not something you can brush off, especially if it happens relentlessly for years.
So, Mr Creep and Mr Boss, I want to say fuck you.
On behalf of all the girls who you mistreated, humiliated, and made feel less than inferior, fuck you. You did not create a safe space for children to flourish and discover who they are. You did not allow for equality. You did not encourage us. You did not comfort us. All you did was make every single person feel like shit for four years. You made us feel guilty for having breasts and vaginas and for bleeding every month. You made us feel like we couldn’t do anything, or amount to anything unless we were mini-versions of you.
But if anyone makes fun of you for playing soccer or having your period or any other innocent act, just know that they are so wrong. You are powerful, you are beautiful and you are going to be great.
You would never allow anyone to question your masculinity or purpose as a man, so how dare you poke fun at women? I am 22 years old and I still think about these things. What you did has a long-lasting effect, and you deserve to know. I don’t think you’ll feel guilty. If anything, you’ll only be angry at me for shining this light on you. But you deserve it. You deserve every bit of backlash for what you did.
I can’t, however, complete this letter without stressing that there were some amazing women in that school that kept it afloat. Without them, you would have been so fucked. And us too. If it weren’t for those women, I don’t think any girls would get out of that school in one piece. So to those women, thank you.
To all the girls enrolled in Pelham now, be grateful that these men no longer walk the corridors. My heart soars at the fact that you don’t have to experience these men. But if anyone makes fun of you for playing soccer or having your period or any other innocent act, just know that they are so wrong. You are powerful, you are beautiful and you are going to be great. Pelham is just a small speck in your life that you can flick off as soon as you leave.
On that note, Pelham — fuck you very much.
This piece first appeared in Edition 10 of Ja. magazine.