Dear Mr. Z.,
You are a shit.
I don’t know why I’ve been thinking about you recently, but every time I have I’ve come back to a place of wonderment that I never said so, to your face. I probably would have been punished: teenagers don’t say things like that to authority figures. But it should have been said, and I wish like hell I’d said it.
I know my parents were over-involved and pushy. I know I was obnoxious and thought I was a special snowflake. But when I found out I was a National Merit Scholar, that should have been a pretty special moment to feel snowflakey about.
Instead, you came to me in the cafeteria and asked me to stand so you could talk to me about something. You didn’t lead me out of the room; you started speaking right there, in what was a surprisingly loud voice for something you’d implied was confidential. And you said, “I just need to talk to you about… are you using birth control? Are you being careful?”
I don’t remember how I replied: if I gasped, or made choking noises, or even laughed. My jaw may literally have dropped open. I remember that I noticed how quiet it had gotten in the area immediately around us, how many people were listening. I remember that I felt naked, like it was that dream where you’re naked in class, only it was real and it was an adult, a teacher, who had stripped me bare.
When you threw your head back and laughed and clapped me on the shoulder and said “Just kidding! You’re a National Merit Scholar! Congratulations!” I’m sure I laughed too. I don’t remember that. I remember the adrenaline buzzing through my limbs, the sick relief in the pit of my stomach. I remember sitting back down and going through the rest of my day in a vague sort of shock, not sure if it was the shock of a pleasant success or a profound trauma. I didn’t have the words for what I was feeling, let alone to articulate what was wrong with what had happened.
I have the words now, though. And they are: You are a shit.
I don’t care why you didn’t like me. It doesn’t matter. That little stunt was inappropriate. You were the adult, I was the kid, and even if there hadn’t been a power differential you would have been out of line.
As I’ve gone through the years since, I’ve learned there are a lot of shits like you, guys who hide the misogyny and bullying in humor. Some of them end up having thriving careers as stand-up comedians or sitcom writers. Some of them run for Congress. None of them are really funny, and we need to practice saying so. If we can’t do it in the moment we need to forgive ourselves, but we need to circle back and say it later. Out loud, in public.
So here you go. You’re not funny, Mr. Z. I hope that somewhere down the line in your career someone managed to say that to your face. I hope that you learned to use your words when you were unhappy with someone. I suspect you didn’t. But rest assured that I learned, and that when I think of Men Who Are Shits, you feature among them. And I’m getting much better at not giggling.