This morning I woke up to find a text from one of my close friends, asking if I had seen an article in the New York Times about a teacher who preyed on female students; he allegedly had sex with seven of them. Her text included a link to the article, plus a note: “This still happens way too often.”
It was a funny day to see the article. Well, maybe not “funny.” It was coincidental, at the very least, to see it on October 2nd. I spend most October 2nds acutely aware that it’s October 2nd, because on this date in 2005, my parents walked into my bedroom and asked me to tell them about what was going on with Mr. Lehrer.* On this date in 2005, when I was 14, I told them that I didn’t know what they were talking about before they repeated their request again. Then I fell to the floor in tears, moaning and begging them not to hurt him.
Mr. Lehrer was my eighth grade history teacher. On Oct. 2, 2005, he was my boyfriend, too. By the end of the day, he was also a suspect under investigation for sexually assaulting a minor. His life and mine changed a lot that day.
Needless to say, my life has changed even more since then, because that’s what happens over the course of nine years. I am 23 now, an adult, about the same age Trace Lehrer was when he sexually abused me. I have grown and grown up from the experience, so much so that I hardly think about Trace Lehrer anymore. (I did chronicle my experience in Texas Monthly last year, and naturally thought about him a good deal then.) I think about him the first week of every October, and usually when I read about an inappropriate student-teacher relationship. There are a lot of stories out there to read.
Many of them are so different from my own story that it throws me a little, to think that my personal history could be lumped into this almost romanticized conception we have of the illicit encounters that occur behind closed classroom doors. The pair of young female teachers recently charged with having group sex with a 16-year-old male student makes for a good example. But the teacher in the Times story, Sean Shaynak, and the victims he’s been charged with abusing sound just like Trace Lehrer and me. Some of the details felt so eerily familiar that reading them made me feel displaced for a second, because they were being reported nine years after happening in my own life, and my name wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the piece. Of course, it’s not my story, but it sure reads like it.
Shaynak, who reportedly allowed close students to call him “ShayShay” (just as Lehrer allowed my friends and I to call him by his first name), played the “cool teacher,” engaging with students as if he were also a teenager and letting them do things other teachers never would. He gave them A’s when they otherwise might have failed, offered them cigarettes and sometimes went to their parties. He was, it seems, wholly inappropriate with his students, regardless of gender. But law enforcement officials now contend Shaynak was especially inappropriate with several female students, all from different backgrounds, whom he sexually harassed or assaulted in some way. According to one law enforcement official, the teacher “groomed” particular women who had one thing in common: “I think he focused on ones who were insecure, and liked to get special attention.”
That was me, without a doubt. And that was Trace Lehrer, too, playing the “cool” teacher — artificially inflating students’ grades (including mine), taking several of us around in his beige pickup truck and so on. Both men also exhibited warning signs before going into teaching that might’ve been considered red flags, but weren’t. Lehrer, like Shaynak, had been accused of some criminal action involving a minor before becoming a teacher: he was charged with providing alcohol to a minor, while Shaynak was charged with physically assaulting his 11-year-old neighbor. Neither crime indicated that either man would go on to sexually abuse female students, nor did they stop either from getting jobs as teachers. Lehrer taught in Texas and Shaynak in New York, so surely there’s an argument to be made that varying state standards should be taken into account. Or it’s a sign that there is a problem that extends nationwide, but we still don’t have a clear grasp on what it is.
That’s where I’m leaning, reading a story of years-long manipulation and exploitation nearly a decade after the same thing happened to me — after the same thing was allowed to happen to me. Because that’s another thing I’ve picked up on, looking at my own story and stories like it with grown-up eyes: These relationships and abuses are always effectively condoned by the bystanders who don’t say anything. There are always warning signs, and they don’t go unnoticed; they just go unreported. I try not to wonder often why none of the other teachers who witnessed Trace Lehrer and I interact said anything. I later heard that they spoke among themselves, that they even warned him to “be careful” of what he was doing. But why didn’t they go to the school administrators? Why didn’t they go to the district? Why didn’t they contact my parents? And what about my friends? Why didn’t they say anything until Trace Lehrer had crossed the line? What about the friends of girls who had sex with Sean Shaynak? Why didn’t they say anything either?
None of this is to blame any of those people, and none of these questions represent grudges I hold. I am as close to being “at peace” with what happened to me as I can be, because time heals all wounds or whatever it is they say. But time should not have to heal these wounds, because they should not have been inflicted in the first place — and there must be a way to prevent them from being inflicted on other people.
The Times notes that in Shaynak’s case, many victims and other students were reluctant to come forward, because they had been “groomed” to protect the offender. This is why these abuses keep happening: because we feel a confused sense of loyalty, an urge to protect those who do violence against others. That manipulation is monstrous, and yet this is rarely how it’s viewed. We see “monstrous” as hiding in a dark alley in a ski mask with a knife and leaping out of the shadows to attack -- not offering students cigarettes and compliments until they want to engage in questionably consensual sex.
I try not to think about these other stories in terms of my own experience. It feels unproductive, digressive, as if I'll never make progress toward being someone who doesn't have a history of sexual abuse. The thing is, though, I will never be someone who doesn't have a history of sexual abuse, no matter how many more October 2nds pass. The same is true of the women who were preyed upon by Sean Shaynak, and by countless other teachers, coaches, colleagues, bosses or others in positions of authority. We're forced to bear our burdens and try to move on, a task that is sometimes impossible to complete alone or at all.
*Not his real name.