I’m looking at a photograph of myself at fourteen. I’m a freshman in high school. I’m wearing an oversized Mickey Mouse T-shirt and baggy jeans. Back then I chose comfort over style. I’m smiling widely, exposing the crooked teeth that led me to beg my mother for braces. A boy I liked told me that I needed them. I believed him. My Jheri-curled hair is pulled back in a low bun, so my teenage acne is on display.
My head is turned to the side to avoid eye contact with the camera. I hated having my picture taken. Still do. I don’t remember the day this picture was taken, but I remember how I felt at fourteen: awkward, nervous, uncomfortable. My face is round and chubby and despite my baggy clothes, I can tell my body hasn’t left childhood behind. I look like a child. I was a child.
When I was fourteen my high school teacher gave me the nickname “Cleavage Queen.” He called me “C.Q.” for short.
Here’s how it began. I attended a conservative, private Christian high school. Instead of dances, we had elaborately themed banquets. That year the theme was Robin Hood. I went to a costume store with my mother and we rented a medieval-inspired, corseted hunter-green dress with a matching headpiece. It was tastefully gaudy, almost comedic. My mother approved.
On the evening of the banquet, my teacher casually walked up and said with a smirk, “You’re showing a lot of cleavage there.” My high school had strict, “biblically-inspired” dress code guidelines, so I had to forgo any jewelry or makeup, and I’d made sure my dress had long sleeves and fell well below my knees.
He was staring at my breasts when he laughed and said, “You’re a Cleavage Queen. I’m going to call you C.Q.” And thus my nickname was born.
My body grew hot. I clenched my teeth to hold back tears. I nervously adjusted my dress and went back to my table. I knew I had breasts. He made me aware of them. He made me hate them, and he made me ashamed. When this teacher approached me that night, I thought I might get in trouble for violating the dress code. But I realized my costume wasn’t the problem. I was.
My mother wanted me and my three siblings to have a safe, Christ-centered education. I received neither. What I received instead was years of racist, sexual harassment at the hands of a man entrusted to educate me.
But I did receive one valuable lesson from my teacher: I learned that white men were dangerous. I learned this because I was Black; I also learned that I didn’t matter so nobody would protect me.
For the next four years, this man would call me C.Q. in private and in public, strategically admitting what the initials stood for depending on who was around. But somehow, though I never heard him tell them, my classmates knew the nickname stood for “Cleavage Queen,” and I’ll never know how, when, or why he told them.
In the company of my principal, my teacher lied and said, “It stands for Clever Queen because she’s so smart.” That was the only truthful thing he ever said about me. I was smart. I am smart.
I never told my mother about this nickname. She is a small, fierce woman, and I know she would have fought for me. But if I didn’t matter, I knew that she, a Black, immigrant woman with a heavy accent, didn’t matter either.
I suffered silently while my classmates and teachers laughed at my expense. My peers mocked me by singing, “I can see clearly now / my boobs are gone.” They were always rewarded with a chorus of laughter when I was the punchline. Nobody saw me for what I was at the time: a child. To my peers, to my teachers, I was a thing to be sexualized. I was C.Q. I was the only Black girl in my high school, so I was the perfect prey.
So I hid my breasts, my shame, and my embarrassment under baggy clothes and sports bras.
This teacher’s daughter and I were classmates, and I often wonder how he would have reacted if another adult man called his daughter “Cleavage Queen.” Would he have laughed it off as an innocent joke? No. He would not have let this happen to her.
He was a great, well-liked teacher, and he was good at what he did. He had a clear passion and talent for education. I enjoyed his classes. All these things are true. But what’s also true is that he sexually harassed me and fostered a culture of sexual harassment with me at the center. It’s taken me over twenty years to realize and admit that both of these things can be—and are—true.
Recently, I went looking for that old photograph of myself at fourteen in search of an explanation. I wanted to find a buxom, Jessica Rabbit-like woman because I wanted his nickname for me to make sense. Instead, all I saw was a young girl. Of course, even if I’d had the body of a “grown” woman it would have been wrong for him to harass me. I know this. But I still looked for the photograph.
There’s a part of me that wants to know what my teacher saw that night at the school banquet and what made it so funny. I want to show him this picture and make him see the child he refused to see at the time. I want him to tell me why he picked me.
And I want to stop hearing his voice when I look at my naked body in the mirror.
As a 37-year-old woman, I still feel a deep shame about my high school years. And anger. Back then, I wanted the harassment to stop, but I knew I couldn’t stop it. My teachers failed me. My school failed me. And schools like Bartram Trail High School in Florida fail their students when they doctor yearbook photos for the sake of “modesty.”
My Christian education groomed me for my harassment. Most of my teachers were white men, and they weren’t just teachers. They were spiritual leaders. My classes began with a brief devotion and prayer, and the curriculum was filled with religion classes that taught the “right” way to interpret the Bible. In Health classes I was taught only about abstinence because it was God’s will. When I asked questions, I was told I needed to pray more, that I needed to have more faith.
There was nothing in the curriculum about sexual harassment or consent. I was taught to remain pure, that sexual desires were immoral. I was taught about modesty and how to be a good girl. Most importantly, I was taught never to question and to respect the authority of white men. And because they were telling me how to be good, it made them appear infallible. So I was silent because I knew nobody would listen if I spoke up. I was good.
I was in high school long before the Obama administration issued strict guidelines on Title IX cases reminding schools of their obligation to protect students. To be honest, I doubt these guidelines would have made a difference in my case. To be protected by Title IX, my teachers would have had to see me as a vulnerable child. I was neither in their eyes.
I may have been the only Black girl at my high school, but in many ways I was still invisible.
It’s taken me those two decades to tell myself that I did nothing wrong. And I hope it doesn’t take another two to believe it fully.
I catch myself staring at old high school pictures because I need to remember what I actually looked like. I need to remind myself that I was a child, I felt like a child, and I looked like a child. And I need to tell the girl in these pictures that I see her even if nobody else around her did. At fourteen, Black girls are still children.