I Narrowly Escaped a Predator — but I Questioned Why He Didn’t Pick Me
It is only now, thirty-eight years later, that I can finally put this experience into words
One day, Mr. Lowery, my tenth-grade English teacher, asked us to name our favorite novels. I said: “Lolita.”
His grin held a hint of malice. “An interesting choice. May I call you Dolores?”
Mr. Lowery — mid-30s, bearded, and prematurely bald — was revered because he connected easily with students. When he spoke, you felt as if you were the only one in the room. His blue eyes sparkled as he asked edgy, probing questions and though his comments often flirted with impropriety, we all loved him.
And now here he was, asking if he could call me Dolores, Lolita’s real name.
This was 1982 at Choate Rosemary Hall, a co-ed boarding school in Connecticut. Until tenth grade, I’d attended an all-girls school in New York City. I had no experience with the opposite sex whatsoever outside of Judy Blume novels. I was excited to be at Choate, but unprepared. And, as I would come to learn, the Choate students were unprepared for me.
I wore edgy clothing, saw myself as cultured and sophisticated. I was what they referred to back then as “artsy.” Back home, I’d been popular. But boarding school students were not like my city friends. Choate girls wore flouncy skirts and pastels. I wore all black. They played sports. I smoked Marlboros. One girl asked if she could borrow my clothes for Halloween. My dorm mates stared at me not with admiration — more like a specimen in a jar.
Having never been an outsider before, I suddenly felt lonely, isolated. At least where other girls were concerned.
Boys were another story. They paid attention, writing me notes and making me mixed tapes. It took time to figure out that they didn’t want friendship — they wanted sex. At first, I was flattered: if I didn’t fit in socially with the girls, I could at least find solace in my sexual power over the boys, a power I had never known before.
After giving my first hickey to one of the Choate boys, I was forever thereafter known as Fang and rejected by its recipient, Peter, who called me disgusting. My roommate let it slip that her parents thought I was “bad news.” Kids would whisper as I walked by.
I didn’t recognize this version of myself; the bad girl whose narrative everyone else had agreed upon. I’d always been a good student, the teacher’s pet. I nursed my wounds through my studies. English was my best subject, and my English teacher, Watson Lowery, was considered a god. I was anxious to impress him.
If I didn’t fit in socially with the girls, I could at least find solace in my sexual power over the boys: a power I had never known before.
I remember I went red and silent when he asked if he could call me Dolores. Mr. Lowery took my reticence for a yes. Now, I had a second nickname besides Fang.
I became Mr. Lowery’s star pupil. If another student posed a question, Mr. Lowery would immediately look me in the eye, asking in his silky voice, “What does Dolores think?”
In his classroom, I received the validation I had failed to get from my peers. But as my self-confidence returned, I ignored my suspicions that something about this whole situation was off. Was calling me Dolores weird? No, I convinced myself. Mr. Lowery was famous at school, adored. I was his pet, what could be so bad about that?
Rumors began to circulate about the two of us, and I secretly liked it. Having been ignored by my female classmates and humiliated by the boys, I became addicted to this older man’s attention. I kept contriving ways to bump into him on campus, but outside the classroom, he would hardly acknowledge me. He’d nod and move past. These snubs filled me with pain. Didn’t we have something special? Then again, Mr. Lowery controlled everything. I controlled nothing. It was a power struggle, and I was losing.
In his classroom, I received the validation I had failed to get from my peers. But as my self-confidence returned, I ignored my suspicions that something about this whole situation was off.
One day he intercepted a note I had written for a friend and confiscated it. In a stern voice, he instructed me to come for tea at his house to discuss my “infractions.”
I walked to his house. Would he report me to the Dean? Or would he take off my clothes? Either possibility seemed as likely as the other. I’d heard that Mr. Lowery had sex with some of his students. I had just developed breasts and had had my period only twice. Was I about to lose my virginity to a teacher?
We sat on his sofa. He took his time, asking me about the books I read outside of school, about my family life. I questioned his literature choices for our class, telling him that Catcher in the Rye was too easy for tenth graders. He smiled, saying that in his class he was sure I would gain new insights into Holden Caulfield’s angst.
He moved closer to me on the sofa, still talking. I could feel the air trying — and failing — to escape my lungs. This was it: Mr. Lowery was going to make a pass at me.
This is what I wanted, I convinced myself. This is why I came here. I wondered what it would feel like to kiss a man with a beard. He leaned toward me. I readied myself, closing my eyes.
I waited. For what felt like an interminable moment. The clock ticked. Nothing. I opened my eyes.
Mr. Lowery looked at my face and began to laugh. If being called Fang for giving a boy hickey was bad, this was infinitely more humiliating. With a wave of his hand told me to leave and never to pass notes again.
I walked back to my dorm, wondering what I had done wrong. Why hadn’t he wanted me, when I’d made myself so available?
After that day, Mr. Lowery never called me Dolores again. Worse, he ignored me. In class, the attention I craved was now rarely mine. When I raised my hand, he called on others.
Would he report me to the Dean? Or would he take off my clothes? Either possibility seemed as likely as the other.
Three and a half decades later, the New York Times published a fifty-page report on the long history of sexual abuse at Choate. Of the twelve teachers named, Mr. Lowery’s name stood out, both shocking and not.
My first reaction, I’m ashamed to admit, was not horror for the survivors but rather: why not me? I didn’t immediately think of myself as a victim. After all, a flirtation between a teacher and a student is not only about physical contact. It’s about power and its abuse.
The shame of our flirtation flooded back, mixed with ego-shattering knowledge that the rumors were true, that he’d found other girls attractive enough to have sex with, but not me. I realize my response was sick and twisted. But I couldn’t help feeling like a failure again, even as I simultaneously knew such a reaction was insane. I had narrowly escaped sexual relations with a teacher who had preyed upon others, permanently damaging their psyches and lives. And yet still, the internal drumbeat was real: why not me, why not me, why not me?
The teachers in the report picked their victims carefully, pursuing the isolated, those lacking self-esteem, and most importantly, the ones who would remain silent. In a 2017 People Magazine profile, survivor and former Choate student Cheyenne Montgomery described her vulnerability: “When her bare-bones background separated her from more affluent Choate classmates, Montgomery confessed her isolation to an adult teacher… and then, in a ‘confusing’ turn for Montgomery, it became sexual.”
Just after the report was published, Montgomery posted an astonishingly brave confession on the Choate alumni Facebook page: “Perpetrators depend on silence. Not just silence from the victim, but silence from the community and silence from institutions, like Choate.”
A flirtation between a teacher and a student is not only about physical contact. It’s about power and its abuse.
Unlike Cheyenne, my isolation was not economic — it was social. I was an outcast. Did Mr. Lowery sense that? Or was he intimidated by my boldness? Was he worried that I’d be the kind of girl who would not remain silent? I can only guess, just as I can only guess why he chose the girls he chose. I am sorry for them. Profoundly sorry.
I escaped, in my own way, but I still ask myself an important question: why did I throw myself in the path of a pedophile? Provoke him and flirt? I knew little about romance and nothing about sex. But I wanted him to want me, regardless of whether or not I found him attractive. I wanted acceptance. I craved that thing pedophiles use so cleverly, the “specialness” of the secret relationship between the two.
Sex was not discussed in my family. If I had had an affair with my teacher in 1982, I would not have told my parents. They — and society — would have seen it as my transgression, not his. Had I confessed to an administrator at Choate, I would have been suspended or expelled. I’d like to believe that things have changed. Our teenagers today have had the concept of consent drilled into them. In the 1980s, I knew the word, but consent seemed like a legal term, coined for teenage girls who got pregnant and needed to get married.
Mr. Lowery’s inappropriate courtship and rejection still live inside me like shrapnel: unremarkable except permanent. He never touched me, never gave me that first kiss, the one I expected while trembling with terror. I remember his libidinous looks in class, his Dolores, his visible excitement — arousal I was too much of a child to understand.
In Connecticut, in 1982, the age of consent was fifteen. At fifteen, I was incapable of knowing to what I would have been consenting. I got an A in Mr. Lowery’s English class that year, but it is only now, at age fifty-three, that I am finally capable of putting what happened in his classroom and on his couch into words.
Amanda Brainerd lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, blocks from where she grew up, and attended the Nightingale-Bamford School before going on to graduate from Harvard College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Her debut novel is called Age of Consent.