Silent Children – My third-grade music teacher likes me best of all. Mr. Pettit with the long blonde hair and beard, wears bell bottom jeans that swoosh when he walks and his chest hairs poke out of his shirt. I bet if he didn’t shave his neck, the hair would grow right up to his beard and onto his head. He smells like cigarettes and Old Spice. On music day, he picks me to dance around the room holding his hand during vocal exercises. I don’t want to touch his hairy hands, it’s gross.
One fall morning, my mother makes me wear a navy blue and white, wool plaid pant suit with a red vest and polka-dot neck tie. My grandmamma bought it for me at an expensive store in Canada. I look like a boy with that suit and my Dorothy Hammel haircut. Mr. Pettit tells the whole class how much he loves my suit. I sink in my chair, my stomach churns as I wait for what I know is coming. He picks me again to join him for the morning vocal warm up, “Ta-ta-ta, ta-tee-tee-ta. Tick-a-tick-a-ta-ta-tee-tee-ta.” I’m so humiliated.
That winter my parents sign me up for ski lessons after school. I take the bus with the other kids to the mountain, but when I line up for the bus to go home, Mr. Pettit is waiting for me. He says there’s no room for me on the bus and he will have to drive me. I don’t want to go with him but he’s the grown up and I can’t sass back. I don’t understand why there was room for me before but there isn’t on the way home. I’m too afraid to ask so I follow him to his car. Inside his beige Volkswagen Beetle are piles of books and papers on the front seat and lots of ski stuff in the back. It looks like there’s no room for me in his car either.
I’m confused. I want my mother to come and get me. I see the buses leaving and I think I’m getting left behind. I start crying. “What’s the matter?” he asks. “Everybody is leaving without me and I can’t fit in your car,” I say. “You’re going to sit right on my lap,” he replies. I think he’s trying to be nice, but it makes my stomach feel really weird. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to be stuck there by myself.
He takes off his ski boots, throws them in the back and sits on the front seat, patting his lap like I’m a little kid. I just stand there. He pulls me onto his lap and slams the door. His arms are wrapped around me to hold the steering wheel. I don’t know how he can drive with me in the way so I lean to the side so he can see where we’re going. I can feel his hot smoky breath on my neck and my stomach has that weird tingling it always gets when something bad is going to happen.
It seems like a long ride back to the school but my mother is smiling and waving and doesn’t seem too worried when I get out of the car. “I was surprised when I didn’t see her get off the bus with the other kids,” mom says to Mr. Pettit.
“Oh the bus was too crowded so I figured I’d give her a ride,” he replies.
“Thanks, that was so nice of you,” mom says with a smile.
After that, I tell my parents that skiing is too cold for me. That is the last ride I take with Mr. Pettit. It is 1976, we are innocent. We are taught to be polite. We place our faith in authority figures. As children we are told that it is better to be seen than to be heard. I learn to acquiesce, push down uncomfortable feelings rather than speak up and risk offending someone. My silence continues for decades, until now.