Women in the World

09.19.12

Raped by a Teacher: One Woman’s Tragic Past at the Horace Mann School

She was a student at the elite Horace Mann prep school in New York when a teacher sexually assaulted her—and did so for years, while she kept her dark secret. Now an adult, she sheds light on why a child stays silent. Her story, as told to Abigail Pesta.

I wish I had never gotten into his car. He was a teacher at the Horace Mann School, an elite prep school on a sprawling, leafy campus in an upscale neighborhood of the Bronx in New York City, and he was offering me a ride home. I had come to the school as a seventh-grader, having graduated from a grammar school across town. Other kids had been at Horace Mann since the first grade; they had known each other for years. The environment was intensely competitive, strict. I was trying to find my footing.

I suppose my teacher sensed that.

This was in the early ’80s, and he was a bit of a nonconformist, sometimes showing documentary films in class rather than teaching by the book. Parents, including my own, looked up to teachers like him, embracing their quirks. However, as The New York Times recently reported, some of the teachers at that time were alleged predators. The Times focused on men who say they were abused at Horace Mann as boys. Unfortunately, it happened to a girl too. It happened to me—and I kept it a secret.

My friends have convinced me to share my story now for the children who suffer silently in the face of abuse, hoping that it will magically go away. I am not naming my abusive teacher, or myself, to protect my own privacy. It has not been easy for me to relive my experience. But I hope my story will shed light on what goes through a child’s mind in such a situation—and why he or she might not speak up.

I don’t remember precisely how long I had been at the school when my teacher offered me the fateful ride. This happened many years ago, and some memories fade. What I do remember clearly is that the ride sounded perfectly fine to me. Other teachers had driven me home on occasion, and it was better than the subway, which was not exactly a pleasant experience. At that time in New York, people often got mugged. One time a man approached me with a maniacal grin, opening his raincoat to reveal a machete. Garbage was piled 12 feet high on the streets; reports of stabbings and shootings dominated the news. Danger seemed to lurk around every corner, but no one expected it to lurk in our classrooms.

On the day my teacher drove me home, he placed a plastic bag of marijuana on the dashboard as we pulled out of the parking lot. I said, “I don’t do that.” He ignored me and soon stopped at a wooded area along the railroad tracks in the Bronx. He rolled a joint and said we were going for a “nature walk.” He started smoking, prodding me to join. The sun was setting, and he pointed to a cobweb glistening in a ray of light. “You see that cobweb, the light dancing off of it?” he said. “You wouldn’t believe how beautiful that looks when you’re high.” He kept pushing me to smoke. Then he put his arm around my waist, pulling me close to him. He said, “Would you like me to be your boyfriend?”

I remember thinking, How surprising, and scary. And a little part of me thought, Wow, someone thinks I’m special. But I was adventurous too. So I just laughed.

He took me back to his apartment, a spare place with not much furniture that I can recall, beyond a big armchair, a futon on the floor, a kitchen table, and a bookshelf. He was divorced, and I remember thinking that his world seemed lonely. He made me a tuna sandwich and a gin and tonic. The drink tasted both sweet and sour, and sipping it made me feel sophisticated. Then he told me I should take a shower. I remember suddenly feeling embarrassed, dirty.

But in my mind, he was the authority, and so I obeyed as he began undressing me. We went to the bathroom, he turned on the water, and I stepped in. I was surprised that there were two showerheads, one at head level, and one at belly level. He began soaping me up. Again, I was filled with embarrassment. He was like an uncle, a much older man in his late 40s. I was not attracted to him; I just remember feeling confused.

I think part of his rage was knowing I would inevitably end up with a younger man, and it infuriated and scared him, making him feel that fate and time were against him.

After the awkward shower, he stood behind me, touching my breasts and pressing himself against me. He smelled like smoke. He led me to his bed and touched his private parts to mine. I was afraid I would be “polluted” by this sexual contact and would never get my period. Then he raped me. I remember the stabbing pain and worrying that this might be fatal. I wondered if I would ever be the same “down there.” I was paralyzed with fear.

Afterward, I was sobbing, and I wanted desperately to go home. But he didn’t want anyone to see me crying. He said if I insisted on leaving, I would have to take the subway. I didn’t know how to get there from his place, and I was in shock. I can’t remember what happened after that, until the next morning. That’s when I asked him what was going to happen now, and he gave me a look of annoyance. He replied gruffly, “Can I eat my bagel?” He looked miserable. Oddly, I don’t remember him telling me to keep quiet at that point. Maybe he just knew that I would. I was an obedient kid, respectful of authority.

Indeed, I didn’t tell my parents what had happened. Instead I said I’d had pizza with a friend and had fallen asleep at her house. I know that sounds strange, but a child’s brain is not rational. In fact, I remember feeling angry at my mother for failing to protect me. I felt that she treated me too much like an adult. And also, I remember feeling ashamed. My parents never talked about sex. Once, when a friend had mentioned being on the Pill, my mother had stared back with a steely look of disapproval. I thought sex was bad.

At the time, my parents were pretty preoccupied. My father was a college professor and my mother a Ph.D. candidate. My dad was an incredibly caring person, deeply troubled by the problems of the world. (He once made me read Elie Wiesel’s Night, so I would have empathy with the Jews.) But he was getting older and seemed to be turning into a curmudgeon who would come home tired and grumpy from his lengthy commute to work. My mother was grieving her parents’ death and struggling to settle their estate while dealing with health issues of her own. My parents argued a lot. They were so caught up in their own dramas, they assumed they were doing me justice by putting every extra penny into my education.

Video screenshot

Amos Kamil wrote about boys who were abused at Horace Mann in 'The New York Times.'

I suppose I thought I could try to forget the bizarre night with my teacher and it would just go away. But of course it didn’t. So I went to an adviser at the school one day, crying. I said that something was wrong “down there.” I felt a bump on my private parts. He referred me to a guidance counselor. I told the counselor that someone had “polluted me,” hesitant to say the word “sex.” He laughed. Incredibly, he gave me a dusty copy of the book Lolita.

Finally, I gathered up the courage to confront my teacher himself. I told him I was scared, that I felt a lump. I remember him sitting in his desk chair and yelling that he didn’t have any diseases. Then he said: “You can’t tell anybody, not even your friends—and especially not my friends! Do you want to get me in trouble? Do you want to end my life?”

In the weeks that followed, I felt nervous and tense, with a constant stomachache. I continued to harbor an irrational feeling that I might die. My teacher acted alternately angry and friendly, which confused me even more. I cried easily; I lost my appetite. I became withdrawn and weak. I couldn’t even do one pull-up in gym class, and I was reluctant to take showers in the locker room. One day some kids started taunting me, cornering me in the locker room and saying, “She’s afraid to take a shower! What do you do, take a bath, or just lick your fur?” I told them to back off, and a kid punched me in the stomach, knocking the wind out of me. Later in class, I burst into tears.

I had become a different person than I was at my former school. There, I was a star student—popular, smart, funny. I felt in control. I giggled with friends at slumber parties; I tossed a tennis ball around the classroom with my pals when the teachers weren’t looking—endlessly hilarious. When I graduated, my parents decided to send me to Horace Mann because the head of the English department there had told them that it was the most rigorous college-prep school around. But in my dark new world there, I felt isolated and ashamed.

As it turned out, my teacher had only just begun with me. We had sex several times that year. It continued to be painful, and he told me to act like I enjoyed it, to help him climax. “Make more noise,” he commanded. He coached me on how to perform oral sex, likening it to “sucking a lollipop.” I think I formed some kind of traumatized bond with him. It all felt surreal.

I continued to keep the abuse a secret from my parents. In my young mind, I felt that somehow they must know what was happening. And since they weren’t doing anything about it, they must be fine with it. I acted sulky and angry, and my mother would ask why. I once said to her, “You know why I’m angry at you!” and she looked utterly bewildered.

The situation with my teacher continued, on and off, into my high-school years, but took a new turn—toward violence. Sometimes, when we were about to have oral sex, I would get a nervous grin on my face, which he interpreted as mockery. He would slap me, hard, one time knocking me to the linoleum floor. He dragged me by my hair and hit me on my back, leaving bruises in the shape of handprints. I think part of his rage was knowing I would inevitably end up with a younger man, and it infuriated and scared him, making him feel that fate and time were against him.

He repeatedly tried to have anal sex with me, and I would push him away. One time, he fell back and landed on his hand. He said, “I think you broke my hand,” and I felt bad that I had injured him. This is how he manipulated me: he made me feel like I wasn’t a caring, loving person. And so, as warped as it sounds, I wanted to be kind. I wanted my teacher’s approval. I tried to help him, even as he abused me.

My world became so strange and confused, my self-esteem so low, that I felt I didn’t deserve anything good. I was tall and one of the top runners on the cross-country team, but when shorter, chunkier girls struggled to pass me, I would slow down and let them pass on purpose. I never dated any boys. If they showed interest, I turned them down.

One night, I wrote a letter to God. I still have it today. I titled it “Confessions of a Lolita” and told him my story. “I am telling you this secretly because I can’t tell anyone else,” I said. I begged his forgiveness for my sins. I reminded him of how I was a caring person. I said, “I can’t break my mother’s heart because she is the person I love most in the world.” As if it were all my fault.

My parents had no idea. They knew I was busy with school activities and after-school jobs—babysitting, waitressing at a café in Central Park, volunteering at charities. And they had their own worries. So I accepted my situation. But at the same time, as I moved through my high-school years and the sex became more frequent, I began to feel angry. I started to see what this man had stolen from me—my virginity, my chance to fall in love with a boy my age, my innocence.

My emotions were in constant turmoil. Despite my anger, I cried one day when I read in my teacher’s journal that he had been with another girl. I called that girl, in tears. My teacher later dumped me, and I felt devastated and used. But eventually, he came crawling back. Our relationship at this point was so obvious, some of my fellow students figured it out.

I graduated from high school and went away to an Ivy League college—and still the relationship continued. I just couldn’t see my way out. My teacher visited me at college, trying desperately to keep me to himself. I remember one particularly vulnerable letter he wrote to me. I have it still. He described his profound sadness at losing his mother, saying, “It’s like you’re safe as long as your mom is alive, but once she goes, watch out.” Then he wrote about his loneliness, saying, “Missing you is as palpable sometimes as missing nicotine.”

I began to enter into a deep depression. I felt wary of my male professors. Finally, I became so overwhelmed that I sought help from a psychiatrist. He told my parents about the abuse. They were furious and felt betrayed by the man they had seen as my mentor. They met with officials at Horace Mann, and my father told my teacher face to face that if he ever contacted me again, he would murder him.

My teacher left the school. But he wasn’t ready to sever ties with me. He showed up at my parents’ home one day and rang their buzzer, hoping to justify his behavior. When my parents wouldn’t let him in, he stood outside in the street, screaming my name. He left a letter for my father, saying: “While I have made many mistakes, it is also true that I’ve remained loyal to her over the years. Ours is no textbook relationship of an older man exploiting a younger girl ... ”

I finally realized that this was an unhealthy, abusive relationship. I saw him only one more time, on a visit to his new home in the South. I could see then that he was an ill man. It was time to leave him behind.

It took a long time to feel that I was deserving of a loving relationship. But over the years, I found one and eventually married. I began a career in the medical field and moved on with my life. But my past lingered. When I heard reports of sexual abuse in the news, such as the Catholic priest scandal, my anger flared up. When the news of the Penn State tragedy broke, I was almost unable to function. The similarities, the way that Jerry Sandusky had become like a father figure to his victims, were almost too much to bear.

This summer, when my friends told me the Times had reported on the men who say they were abused at Horace Mann some 30 years ago, it shook me again. I could not, and still cannot, bring myself to read the articles. The school issued a series of statements, saying it is “appalled and saddened” by the reports of abuse and that it is cooperating with police investigations.

I still have nightmares. In the most recent one, I’m in a car, being kidnapped by two strangers. But I don’t allow them to take me. I reach forward, grab their heads, and break their necks. You see, I’m stronger now. I have found ways to overcome my past. I lift weights, run, bike, swim. Feeling fit helps me to conquer the memories of the helplessness I felt at Horace Mann. And I know now that what happened to me was not my fault.

I have a daughter now, and she is starting the seventh grade, the same age as I was when I first entered the Horace Mann School. I hope that by reading my story, parents will be able to educate their children, look for warning signs, and prevent future abuse. We cannot change the past, but by working together, we can change the future.