The Other Side of the Story
When I was fourteen, I had a relationship with my eighth grade history teacher. People called me a victim. They called him a villain. But it's more complicated than that.
Most of us have had one of those teachers. For one of my friends, it was the ninth grade biology instructor who inspired her to become a doctor; for another it was the art history teacher who introduced her to Rothko and a career as a museum curator. Details about those teachers’ classes almost never matter; they provide a different education, which outweighs the value of carefully composed lesson plans. Those teachers offer insight that has nothing to do with multiplication tables and nothing to do with grasping Shakespeare. Instead, they teach us the things we can’t find on Wikipedia or in textbooks. They teach us things that are real and genuine and valuable, things we have to learn about life, about people, and about ourselves. They show us the big stuff.
I had one of those teachers when I was fourteen. His name was Mr. Lehrer.*
Mr. Lehrer had just graduated from college when he stepped in as my middle school’s new eighth grade American history teacher, halfway through the school year. He was 23 years old, but his round, unblemished face made him look more like someone’s high school-aged brother than a grown-up with his own health insurance. Even without the Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots he would occasionally wear to school, Mr. Lehrer appeared inescapably unsophisticated. His wardrobe consisted of a country boy’s Sunday best: short-sleeve oxford shirts, pressed khaki pants, and brown round-toed shoes made of thermoplastic rubber. All of his slacks were oversized just enough to subvert whatever professional appearance he meant to convey, and his hair had a cowlick as prominent as his syrupy southern accent. Mr. Lehrer’s thin lips stayed sealed most of the time, but when he did speak the sound came not from vocal chords but from roots in the Texas Coastal Bend. He had the comportment of a farmhand, always equally proud and sheepish as he stood, stiff and silent, waiting to be told what to do.
Mr. Lehrer rarely gave orders, and few of my peers took him seriously. At any given moment, he could be found pleading for silence while students arranged their desks in uneven clusters to chat. We would gossip or paint our nails or dance to hip-hop as it buzzed through the speaker on someone’s T-Mobile Sidekick. The boys would turn daily assignments into paper airplanes while the girls made origami cranes and fortune-tellers, but no matter what shape the worksheets took they were neither completed nor handed in.
On the few occasions when Mr. Lehrer did attempt to enforce the rules, he would shout into the din of eighth grade chatter only to have his students ignore him. So, one day, he gave up and started to ignore us back. When the bell rang at the top of the hour each class period, Mr. Lehrer would seclude himself in a corner of the room and quietly read emails for the next 55 minutes. He looked less like a teacher and more like a disenchanted camp counselor, underpaid and trapped in a space too small for larger hopes.
Once Mr. Lehrer stopped trying to teach and started to condone our classroom debauchery, he became an object of fascination for my group of friends. Suddenly the new young teacher seemed interesting, or, at the very least, worth investigating. We began to surround his desk with our insipid adolescent babbling and our newly curvaceous bodies, asking him questions about his teenage years on his family’s farm or about his fiancée who worked as a nurse. We asked what it was like to grow up in a town with the population of our middle school, or if it was exciting to finally get a driver’s license, or how it felt to go to college and move away from home.
Shortly after my group of friends first invaded his corner, Mr. Lehrer warmed to us and began responding to our questions. He told us about the time he hit a deer while driving home down a dark dirt road, and he said that he moved to Houston for his fiancée even though his parents had raised him to detest city life. Eventually, Mr. Lehrer let us address him by his first name—Trace—and he allowed us to spend lunchtime every day in his classroom while he told us about his life. We sat perched on desktops while Mr. Lehrer talked, devouring our crustless PB&J sandwiches along with every word he said.
To us, Mr. Lehrer was omniscient: he had already written the chapter of his life that my friends and I were starting to scribble for ourselves. Tales about his teen adventures seemed novel and foreign and, yet, as if they might soon become our own—we just had to blow out one more round of birthday candles and open up our eyes. Mr. Lehrer represented the way boys would be when we got to the other side of high school, seemed to us like the kind of male friend we could expect to have one day, but who we were lucky to find so soon. We all liked Mr. Lehrer. Mr. Lehrer liked all of us.
But I could always tell he liked me the most.
Because, of course, I had developed a crush on Trace Lehrer. He seemed to be the first male I had ever met who wasn’t completely asinine or immature. Unlike the boys my age, Trace Lehrer didn’t make “Yo Mama” jokes, and he didn’t make fun of girls he liked. Trace Lehrer would look me in the eye when he told stories to my friends during lunchtime, and he would smile at me when we all chatted with him after school. Despite the fact that puberty was leaving my friends’ waists and hips and thighs pleasingly smaller than my own, Trace Lehrer seemed only to notice that their vocabularies and worldviews and dreams stayed smaller too. He told me I was smart—told me he liked me because I was smart—and so I valued my own intelligence, because I valued whatever Trace Lehrer told me was valuable. I liked anything he said he liked because he liked me, and I liked him for liking me.
But whenever I started to think that Trace Lehrer might possibly like me, the faraway sound of my own voice would berate me, shouting that such an attraction was a fantasy. Another voice—my mother’s—would join the chorus in my head: I could hear her assuring that awkward, ostentatious version of me that boys would never find me attractive; only men would be interested. Then my own distant, rational voice would remind me that Trace Lehrer was not one of those men.
One evening during my first week of high school, I received a call from an unfamiliar number with a 361 area code. It was two days after I had visited Trace Lehrer in his classroom, where we had talked about our summer vacations and, all the while, talked around what I was doing back at the middle school. He had asked what I did over the break, and I told him I went to sleep-away camp; I asked him the same question, and he told me he went on his honeymoon. We both kept our hands in our own laps. I never gave him my phone number.
I learned years later that my younger sister, then twelve years old and a seventh grader where Trace Lehrer taught, had told him how to reach me, only after he urged her to put us in touch. I hardly remember anything he and I said on the phone that first night he called; I can’t remember most of the phone calls that followed that one either, although over time those conversations came to occupy my every waking moment.
When I think now about all the talks Trace Lehrer and I had, I remember them just as I do movies that I haven’t seen in years: I can recall the major plot points but virtually none of the dialogue. Our conversations would go on for hours and keep me awake into the early morning as if I had procrastinated on an assignment, or consumed too much caffeine in the late afternoon. They were my alarm clock in the morning, my guide from class to class, my distraction from family and friends and homework and real life.
I tried to make it impossible to remember everything Trace Lehrer and I said to one another. I thought that real relationships happened in the uneventful hours that we later know we lived through but cannot fully recall, so I tried to fill as many days as I could with the muffled sound of voices through a cellphone. I thought that I could build something significant with insignificant tools: calls, quips, and confessions that were routine, that didn’t stick. I thought that Trace Lehrer and I could be significant together.
I also thought it didn’t matter much that I was fourteen years old, or that Trace Lehrer was a much older married man knocking on my bedroom door.
Eventually, Trace Lehrer and I spent more time in my room than we did in his, but at the beginning we snuck around in his beige Ford pickup. I can no better count the number of afternoons I spent in that truck than I can tally hours I surrendered to the telephone. We would occasionally drive around the city and get lost on Houston’s knotted freeways, but frequently we just parked in the lot of an unmarked office building several blocks from my best friend’s house. A massive unpatched tire, useless and covered in mud, permanently occupied the truck’s backseat, so Trace Lehrer and I always shared the bench up front. We would joke or complain or listen to the radio while I laid my head against his collarbone, Trace Lehrer tracing invisible poems between my shoulder blades.
We went to the lot because it was convenient and because I hadn’t suggested that we go anywhere else. Trace Lehrer never told me what we were doing and never decided where we would go; he left all of those decisions up to me. One afternoon, while we were parked in the lot, I asked if I could learn how to drive. Trace Lehrer smirked and said he wasn’t my teacher anymore; I pouted. “Maybe you would learn best,” he said, “if we both sat in the driver’s seat.”
He suggested that I sit in his lap and steer while he controlled the pedals, as I had with my father when I was a little girl. When we would make family visits to my grandparents’ house in Florida, my father used to take me for special rides in their golf cart—but only if I behaved. He would let me climb up on his knees when I was still a child, so I could steer the cart while he put his left arm around my waist and his right foot to the floor. As we would zoom past the manicured esplanades, the impatiens that filled them with shades of red and pink and purple always blended together, because I was too young or too excited to know that we were speeding along at just fifteen miles per hour.
At fourteen, those memories of zipping around with my father when I was seven felt as fresh and sharp as the peninsular air that would rush by our golf cart. I couldn’t “learn to drive” in Trace Lehrer’s lap. Instead, I feigned disappointment at his suggestion and stared silently out the window until he switched spots and handed me the keys. I scooted over to the driver’s seat while Trace Lehrer situated himself close to me, nestling up to my right side.
“Just to be safe,” he said, winking at me.
I stood a meager five feet tall when I was fourteen and couldn’t reach the pedals sitting normally in the seat. I inched forward until I was hardly on the bench anymore, then rested both feet on the pedals: right on the gas, left on the brake. I was lost.
Trace Lehrer showed me what to do. “You only use one foot,” he said, squeezing my leg where my skirt had left it shamelessly exposed, at the spot where knee becomes thigh. He ran his hand back and forth, up and down my right quad as he told me to set my other foot aside, to “let it rest,” but my left foot tapped against the leaf-covered floor mat as I kept trying to figure out the pedals. A piece of hair hung loose from my ponytail and rested on my cheek; Trace Lehrer tucked it behind my ear before leaning in and whispering through a smile.
I thought I had just tapped the accelerator but really I slammed it, and the pickup charged instantaneously at a lamppost. As the truck lurched forward, my gut lurched with it. I gasped at the sensation of my stomach reaching for my feet. Trace Lehrer laughed with his eyes closed before he pulled me near and said, “I think you need s’more lessons, baby.” He pinched playfully at the squishy curve of my waist while he taught me to use the brakes, so the two of us wouldn’t crash to a stop.
I felt a different sensation when I lied to my parents every day. My lungs would expand as if they were trying to shatter my ribcage, but instead of releasing air I just exhaled lies. Most of my deceptions created an electronic paper trail: text messages that let my parents know I would get a ride home with the neighbor kid after seventh period, emails that told them I had to work on a big group project after school at my friend’s house.
There were other lies to keep track of too. If the neighbor kid had dropped me at home by four o’clock, why hadn’t I fed the dog? And why did I always want to know what time my mother planned to get home from work? If I had just been at my friend’s house working on a project, why was I on the phone with her? And if I wasn’t talking with her, who was I talking to all the time?
While the neighbor kid was on his way to soccer practice every day at four, I was in the front seat of Trace Lehrer’s pickup with no intention of working on a project. Of course, no group project but the one I had invented would have required some young teacher to hang around my parents’ house each weekday evening before my mother and father had left their offices. Certainly no group project would have stipulated that Trace Lehrer and I should one day find ourselves alone in a bed together.
I used one simple fact to justify the lies: neither Trace Lehrer nor I had committed a crime. We spent afternoons chatting and caressing and concealing ourselves in a truck, but nobody broke any laws in the beginning. All the lies I told about Trace Lehrer seemed vaguely harmless then. I would store each deception mentally as if it were money in a swear jar. The untruths built up as that uncountable mass of coins does, a jumble of bad behavior contained in glass with a lid.
But, just as a swear jar can’t eliminate obscenities—and just as it hardly prevents their future use—I kept storing up more and more lies without ever thinking that I should consider telling the truth. The faint, rational voice in my head told me that I couldn’t hide a grown-up love affair under the roof of my childhood home. I might have been a naive, insecure fourteen-year-old, but I knew that Trace Lehrer was only safe in secret. And so I kept hold of the jar full of lies. Some other voice in my head told me that my parents would find the jar someday, not necessarily because they went looking for it. Instead, they would finally notice it sitting out in the open.
The first time Trace Lehrer really touched me it seemed innocent. We were at my parents’ house, on another ordinary weekday when I had told them yet another blatant lie. My mother had just called to say she was in the car on her way home from work, so I was showing my guest out the front door. He always came through the front after he parked his Ford under an old lady’s magnolia tree down the street, far enough away that the neighbors wouldn’t suspect anything.
That particular afternoon, I pretended to be doing laundry just before Trace Lehrer arrived. I had left clean clothes strewn around the washing machine to illustrate my false pretense; I needed a feasible explanation for greeting Trace Lehrer dressed in nothing but a bath towel. The towel I wrapped around my pounding chest is white in my memory, although my parents have only ever had towels in shades of brown or buff or olive drab.
The real life symbolism would have been all too clear: as Trace Lehrer exited through the front door thirty minutes after he arrived, my mother having called sooner than expected, I stood on the threshold clothed and disappointed and feeling like an idiot. I was unintentionally still as virtuous as I had been at the top of the hour.
I couldn’t understand Trace Lehrer’s behavior, or lack thereof; he was explicit in words, but not in actions. We saw each other every day and remained in contact every moment we spent apart. More confusingly, we had replaced first names with pet names in our ceaseless conversations, which had begun to focus on fantasies and plans for our future. “How many kids will we have, baby?” Trace Lehrer had asked me one night before. “Will you come on hunting trips with me and our son?”
We were—as my fourteen-year-old-mind conceived of it—in a “serious relationship.” But we weren’t doing the physical things that other people in serious relationships did, things that I was ready to do with Trace Lehrer. At least, things that I thought I was ready to do with Trace Lehrer—that I really, really wanted to do. When he talked about our future house and our future kids and our future life, I imagined he really wanted to do those things too.
I leaned against the doorframe and looked out at the front yard, allowing my longish bangs to obscure one side of my face in a way that I hoped was sexy. Mostly, I hoped that my blond security blanket masked the childish dismay I could feel stinging my eyes. Trace Lehrer stopped in front of me on his way out the door and put one hand on the back of my neck, tracing an imaginary line up my nape until his palm rested at the base of my skull. He spread his fingers like a starfish through the waves of my hair and tugged lightly to turn my face toward his. He pulled me close and brushed my bangs back, then kissed me lightly on my forehead. He grazed my face with hardly any pressure at all, but it felt as if my own lips never could have sustained their weight.
Trace Lehrer looked me in the eye before he left me in the doorway. He might have whispered something in my ear, but real life sustains only so many clichés.
When he was next in my bedroom—on a Monday that we both had off from school—Trace Lehrer brought with him a truth that is still impervious to lies. I tried to shroud that truth in my flowery orange duvet and my ornate made-up stories, but any lie that I could have told seemed too big to keep in a jar. The truth remains that something happened, and—like everything that happens—it happened while it did and then it didn’t. That too-warm September morning remains elusive in my memory, but it clings to my personal history like gum on the bottom of a shoe.
I saw what happened that day as something from a dream; other people would later see it as a criminal act. Of course, it was. In fact, it was the only crime with which Trace Lehrer could be charged. No one could charge him with theft for all the grade points I didn’t earn, or the daydreams I didn’t have, or the friends I didn’t make while he and I spent hours together on the phone. And no one could bring a case against Trace Lehrer for vandalizing my reputation in the eyes of my peers and their parents and our teachers, or in my own eyes when I looked in the mirror months, even years, later. I saw Trace Lehrer’s accomplice; other people saw his victim.
I still cannot determine when I would have become a victim, because I’ve never believed that I did. When would that have happened? Certainly not in those moments that Trace Lehrer and I spent outside the law, between the sheets, where I was convinced that the rules were meant to protect anyone but me. Trace Lehrer and I were the exception to the rules; the law safeguarded only fourteen-year-old girls who didn’t know what they were doing, when I was so sure that I did. If I did fall victim at all, I fell to inexperience, manipulation, or the jealous threats Trace Lehrer made to keep me quiet and convinced of his affection. I believed that I was safe, and loved, and in no need of rescue. If anything, I was a victim of delusion.
I suppose that I delude myself even now, years later. I do not think or speak about the truth that once lay between Trace Lehrer and me. Now it just sits in the back of my closet, behind the outgrown sweaters and the skeletons.
There was a time, however, just after that September morning, when my delusion led me to speak the truth quite freely, despite all the lies surrounding it. I felt giddy. I was excited and I was fourteen, and fourteen-year-old girls gossip about the boys they kiss. I found the secrets of that special Monday pouring out of my mouth and into the ears of my closest friends. When I remembered to act my own age, I forgot the boundaries I had to maintain in order to protect my married, grown-up boyfriend. I wanted to brag; I wanted to be like the other girls.
The other girls had no idea what to say or do about my relationship. Trace Lehrer—Mr. Lehrer—hadn’t watched them intently during lunchtime or stayed alone with them after school, and he certainly hadn’t groomed them to believe that they were active, willing participants in whatever game it was he played with me. At the time, I thought he and I were playing house. My friends observed a different game from the bleachers, a dirty one with unfair rules and mismatched experience on either side. When I boasted to them about Trace Lehrer, they just stared at me with squinted eyes, their mouths slightly agape. I felt as if they misconstrued the incident in my bedroom, as if they were choosing to hear a sad exposition to the story instead of my happy ending.
Though my friends didn’t know what to say, I suppose they did know what to do: they asked for help. That help showed up in my parents’ driveway on an otherwise typical Sunday evening in early October, when two distressed mothers got out of a big red Chevy and stood before both of my parents to tell them everything—why the dog was hungry when they got home, why I always asked when they would be leaving their offices, and why I always talked to my friend on the phone when I had just been over at her house.
I didn’t know why my parents were outside until they came back in the house a few minutes later and told me to follow them to my bedroom. When my father headed straight for the table where my cellphone lay and plucked it from the charger, I knew. I knew that they knew. Worse, I knew that even still I would have to tell them.
I followed my father to where he stood and asked what he was doing. He put the phone in his pocket and walked across the room to stand beside my mother, who sat in a bright violet beanbag chair littered with unfolded laundry. She had demanded that I put the clothes away earlier that evening, right before she learned there was a much bigger mess to clean up in my bedroom. Her crossed arms and narrowed eyes made it clear that I would not be asking any more questions that night. I had too many to answer.
She and my father were prepared to wait for me to explain the unexplainable. I tried to let my fictions speak for themselves, but all I had was that damned jar full of lies. Suddenly, my untruths flooded the house and covered every inch of my childhood home. Furious, my parents stared at me, faces white and minds boggled with all the deceptions we had to sort out.
My mother changed her demands. “Tell us about Mr. Lehrer,” she said.
Before we started sifting through lies, while my parents were still outside learning my secrets, I had been working on my algebra homework and waiting for Trace Lehrer’s wife to leave for her graveyard shift. He was supposed to call me. I was so busy imagining the sound of my cellphone ringing that I couldn’t hear the world falling apart outside. If he did try to reach me that Sunday night, I assume that his call went unanswered. My phone probably buzzed and vibrated incessantly with voicemails and text messages to which no one would ever respond.
I don’t know for sure, though, because my phone sat safely in my parents’ bedroom until they turned it over to the district attorney’s office several days later. I sat safely in their room too, hysterical and dehydrated by tears, while my father explained to me what would happen in the following days. First, he looked at me through watery, bloodshot eyes and told me that I was a child—a child who thought she was an adult, but who would have to be treated like an infant. He maintained an even tone as he previewed what seemed to me an illogical progression of the only logical next steps.
He and my mother would take me to a place called the Children’s Assessment Center at ten o’clock the following morning, he said; it was a place dedicated to the examination of children who been mentally, physically, or sexually abused. He told me I would not go to school that next day, but my sister would. She would sit in a classroom down the hall from Trace Lehrer’s, but Trace Lehrer would not be at work. He would not be there on Monday, or Tuesday, or any day after that.
Trace Lehrer would be far away from every member of our family because my father, a lawyer, would file a restraining order later that Sunday night. While my parents were on the phone with the police for the second or third time, I would fall asleep with salt dried to my face and the door to my bedroom open. For the next few days I would shower with the bathroom door ajar as well, and I would continue to leave doors open until my mother and father felt that they could trust me to be in a room by myself.
My father promised that he and my mother would watch over me. They would follow me down the halls of the Children’s Assessment Center, through cold fluorescent corridors lined with security cameras. The most important camera would hide behind a two-way mirror, in an alcove where a social worker with short sandy hair would ask me questions. The mirror would look like one from an interrogation room on a cop show, but it would be much smaller and it would reflect the social worker in profile as she implored me to tell her the details of my relationship with Trace Lehrer. My father warned me that I would answer every single question she asked.
I would answer curtly but honestly, and I would get very quiet and red when she asked me to tell her what Trace Lehrer did to me in my bed. When we finished talking on Monday afternoon, my parents would take me to the cafe I liked around the corner from the center, and they would let me get domino cake for dessert. My mother would not speak to me for the remainder of the day, until she could find words that were not vile. My sister would not speak to me at all, until she could find words, period. My father would keep explaining, until one or all of us could pretend we understood what was going on.
When we got back from lunch, my parents and I would pick my sister up from school and the four of us would go meet with a therapist. The therapist would tell me to call her Allison, and she would meet with me weekly at her office for months and months to come. She would spend an hour each Thursday morning asking me if I should feel guilt or accept blame for what happened with Trace Lehrer, and I would spend the hour wondering how the sun could rise so quickly when other things seem to take so much time.
My father said that he and my mother would explain the situation to Allison on our first visit. Neither of my parents would have the words to describe what had happened, but they would try anyway. I would try—and fail—as well. We would say Trace Lehrer’s name aloud that day, but after that we would say it only once enough time had passed, once I could sleep with my bedroom door closed and no tears on my face.
We would still have to go to synagogue on Tuesday, my father said, where he and my mother would digest the truth before they fasted for the start of the Jewish New Year. The four of us would go to temple to mark the first of the ten days of repentance, and we would be much too honest with strangers. We would correct the people who had seen inaccurate local news reports about Trace Lehrer, who knew him as the middle school teacher that sexually abused a current student—some preteen boy, according to the stories.
I would tell anyone who mentioned Trace Lehrer that the “victim” was actually a former student and that she was actually a fourteen-year-old girl. I would tell them that I was the girl and that I hadn’t been sexually abused, then swear that Trace Lehrer loved me and that I loved him back. It couldn’t be abuse when he and I had discussed what we were going to name our kids. I would tell them that none of this was fair, and I would feel slightly embarrassed because I would know that the strangers agreed with me—it wasn’t fair—but that they would think it wasn’t fair for different reasons. I would tell only those who weren’t strangers that I missed Trace Lehrer and that I knew he and I would speak soon, but everyone felt like a stranger then.
When I heard the call to prayer, I would stop talking and take the seat between my parents, and I would use the service to reflect on my transgressions. I would try to repent for Trace Lehrer’s sins because I would think they were my own. When I asked God for forgiveness, it would be for him.
Eventually, I stopped trying to repent for sins I didn’t commit and started to make up for ones I did. For much too long, I blamed myself for what happened with Trace Lehrer. I thought I was at fault for a host of reasons, not least of all because I believed I had made a choice. As I learned later, though, there had been only one choice to make, and it wasn’t mine.
Week after week, I would go to Allison’s office and she would ask me to share memories that were rapidly fading to black. In reality, she wanted me to share the memories that were still neon bright but not quite blinding—the memories to which I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t have to stare straight at them. She made me translate those memories into words, so that finally, when she asked me if what had happened was my fault, I would say no.
By the time I could see the situation in crisp black-and-white, free of the confusing gray filter that had tinted my vision when I was fourteen, a couple of years had passed. So had my anger. As I coped with the everyday trials of high school, I had neither the time nor the energy to cope with a trial for Trace Lehrer’s crimes. I was too busy being a regular teenager. College applications and life decisions awaited me, and I couldn’t handle the looming stress of testifying in court. And, after months of face-offs and breakthroughs in therapy, I was too tired to relive an event that seemed, even then, as if it had happened to someone else. My exhaustion didn’t signify defeat; I was just different. I had gotten older and I had gotten over it.
So, when Trace Lehrer inevitably used up his judicial continuances, I behaved like the bigger person I thought I was supposed to be, even when he didn’t. I asked the prosecutor to offer him a plea bargain that he was likely to take, just to end the ordeal forever. He shot himself in the stomach while he was walking his dog one afternoon, to prolong his innocence indefinitely. When he recovered a few months later, he took the DA’s offer: six months in jail, several years on probation, and a lifetime as a registered sex offender.
My parents asked if I was satisfied on the day of Trace Lehrer’s sentencing. I told them I didn’t need him thrown in jail and I didn’t need him to report to a probation officer, I just needed to know that his choices would be limited—that none of those choices would ever be fully his again. I needed to know that the decisions he had already made, on my behalf and his own, would mark his life for at least as long as they would mark mine.
Sometime after the sentencing, Trace Lehrer went to jail. Sometime after that, I went to college. The interim was full of “normal” teenage milestones—getting my driver’s license, getting a car, getting grounded for breaking curfew—but not so full of ghosts. I couldn’t change the past, so I didn’t live in it. I graduated high school, moved away, and made new friends, and none of them knew what happened to me when I was fourteen. Some people at my university knew about “the teacher incident,” as my family had come to call it: the admissions staff read about it in my application essay. Otherwise, for the first time since my parents found out about him, Trace Lehrer was a secret that I kept.
I didn’t consciously decide not to tell anyone what happened, but I also didn’t decide to leave Trace Lehrer behind like the paperbacks and purses I wouldn’t need at school. I quickly came to understand that leaving behind that part of my past wasn’t—and will never be—an option, but that wasn’t clear to me when I first left home. What was clear, though, was the reason I hadn’t lied about the ordeal in years. My family found out about Trace Lehrer because someone ripped off the band-aid when I wasn’t looking; everyone else found out because I refused to cover up my wounds.
“The teacher incident” was an open secret to most anyone who knew me in high school, and open secrets became the only kind I knew how to keep. But I lost opportunities to let my secret slip with the close of my high school career, and when college began, I found few opportunities to tell strangers that something horrible had happened to me when I was fourteen. Even when yet another story—one just like mine, with a villain and a victim and all the salacious speculation that comes with these tales of abuse—would show up on the evening news, I still wasn’t comfortable talking about Trace Lehrer. I needed people to know about him, but not for the reasons that he and other abusers end up in the headlines. My story didn’t show up in the news to deter any future predators. It was reframed for consumption and packaged for entertainment. Needless to say, what happened to me was not entertaining.
What happened to me still makes me get quiet whenever I learn that yet another teacher has preyed on a student, and to this day, if someone is going to be my friend, I need her or him to understand why. Back then, more than now, I needed people close to me to know the reason that certain jokes would never make me laugh, or why certain photographs would sometimes make me cry. If someone was going to dislike me, I needed them to find different weapons to toss my way when they wanted to throw stones. And I needed to apologize in advance, I thought, for whatever unforeseen emotional consequences the event had had, which I would inevitably and inappropriately display. I needed to explain myself in a way the evening news never could.
As happens with most traumatic, life-altering events, there have been chances for me to talk about Trace Lehrer, and I have never shied away from them. I have told strangers about him in the punch line of a party or after the punch line of a particularly insensitive joke; no matter the context, people’s faces always twist the same way. Invariably, someone is disarmed by the standardized, straightforward way in which I say, “I had an illicit affair with my eighth grade history teacher when I was fourteen,” and I can’t blame them. My phrasing makes me seem cavalier, and so too does the logic underlying it—if I can’t change the meaning of the sentence, what’s the point in changing its construction?
In reality, word choice has been painstaking. The whole ordeal ended a long time ago, and still I’ve found no better term to describe what happened than an “affair.” It’s a word I’ve chosen carefully, because it seems like the only appropriate word I could have chosen, or the only word that can bear the weight of what I mean. It implies the fault I felt for so many years, but I keep it tethered to the innocence that makes—that has always made—my hands clean. I use the word “affair” because it is malleable, because it is discreet, because it connotes something that I feel more comfortable implying than do words like “assault,” “abuse,” or “molestation.” When I say that I had an “affair,” I feel I have the agency and the control that I never had when the whole affair happened.
Still, the word means something I can’t describe; I never learned the right vocabulary. I did learn that Trace Lehrer and I had something significant, though, but no one ever taught me its name. Whatever it was wrenched my gut more than my heart once it ended, though most of the lasting effects have worn off. It still makes my hands sweat whenever I drive past my middle school on my way back home to see my parents, but my heart no longer starts beating up my windpipe, threatening to choke me, when I walk by an anonymous twenty-something with ill-fitting pants and a cowlick.
It used to ride around in the beds of beige Ford pickup trucks, which incited my worst panic: even when the truck didn’t have a dent on one side—even after Trace Lehrer pled guilty, went to jail, and moved to a ranch somewhere off in the Hill Country—the beige Ford on the road was always his. My stomach would reach for my feet when one pulled up next to me, the way it did the first time I ever drove Trace Lehrer’s truck. A few years ago, I stopped confusing the tug in my gut for excitement or exhilaration or love, and then, eventually, I stopped feeling the tug at all.
Now, I recognize the sensation as anxiety and shrewdness and intuition—a lesson learned from the man who crept into my bedroom while my mother and father were out; who I wrapped in my bed sheets while he wrapped me around his finger; who held my head against his chest, stroked my hair, and made my stomach flutter. I once believed that that flutter came from the flapping of butterflies’ wings, but I have since learned that it came from a grown man fanning the flames of a young girl’s vulnerability. Trace Lehrer taught me that those flames consumed naiveté and then released passion, but I have since learned that they engulfed trust and then incinerated innocence. They left scar tissue on my memory and cinders of my late childhood. But Trace Lehrer taught me that I could gather those remains just as I once gathered lies in a jar, and I have learned to spread the ashes along wherever I go, so that I won’t have to rummage through debris. He taught me to follow him down a dark dirt road, but I have since learned to follow my gut.
Had I followed Trace Lehrer instead, I’m not sure what else he might have shown me. He showed me manipulation and lies and jealousy and perversion, rage and confusion and complexity and tears, and—when he stood up and mumbled his guilt before a full courtroom—I suppose Trace Lehrer also showed me justice. He showed me what it means when I feel my hands start to sweat and my windpipe start to close and my insides as they drop to the floor. He showed me what it means to be a grown-up, showed me how to behave like a human being. Trace Lehrer showed me the big stuff. He was the best teacher that I’ve ever had.
*Editor’s Note: Some names have been changed to protect the person’s identity.