Since this post is highly requested and I also promised I would make it into a Patreon post, here it is!
It took me some time to actually write it, since it feels like the wounds have been ripped open again since that reunion 2 weeks ago.
I’m going to cover the story of what happened in High School first so you’re with me when I tell you what happened on the reunion.
Exactly 10 years ago
I’m 17 years old and I’m in my senior year in High School. I study Fine Arts at the Art Academy in Bruges. I am already looking at folders for college and I long to go to the same school as my friends. I already have a backpack filled with emotions as I am a teenager finding my way and meaning in life. It’s not easy, but I guess that’s how life is, right? I can handle it. I’ve been through a lot already and I can handle these last few months in High School.
I’m busy working on my senior project and I actually love the theme. The theme is about strong women like Jane Goodall, Marie Curie, Frida Kahlo and others. I already portrayed a few of them. I love making portraits.
I already went to a few of the meetings with my mentor. He’s also a teacher of mine. He’s a little weird and I know for a fact that he’s dating one of my classmates. She’s very ripe for her age and she’s never scared to flirt with him in class. One of my friends caught her sitting on a bench late at night in Bruges one day with his hand on her leg. He’s married. And she’s only 17 as well.
He evaluates my work and says I need to start over. In his opinion, these women represent nothing. These portraits mean nothing to him either. I need to show sex. I need to show nudity. I need to show women who are naked and sexual. That’s what he said. And that’s not what Jane Goodall stood for. Neither did Frida Kahlo or Marie Curie. Still he wanted sex in my work.
The next evaluation he goes a step further and actually tells me that I need to show him some sexuality of my own. I always wear turtlenecks because it made me feel comfortable. I figured it would keep men at a distance since I already had my fair share of men getting in my comfort zone and violating my boundaries.
In 2009 we still have to do it that way. We have no chance of winning an argument if it is about sexual assault because it is unspoken of and so much taboo. We still have to make sure that we don’t “ask for it” in some way.
One day, my “mentor” tells me it was either doing sexual actions and getting my degree or not giving him what he wanted and be left without a degree. I thought he was bluffing so I chose the second option for myself when he told me this. Little did I know he meant every single word of it.
I have this little old school audio recorder with those tiny tapes in my pocket. I go to the class he teaches and I press record before I go in. He comes to my desk and tells me “You can still consider what I offered you”. I ask him what he meant. He tells me that I can still consider having sex with him. I feel strong having this conversation on tape.
It’s April which means it’s jury time. I’m there with my work surrounded by all these amazingly strong and powerful women I portrayed in colorful oil paintings. I’m so proud of what I made.
I normally have a chance to discuss my work and what it stands for. Unless this time.. I don’t. I worked long hours on my senior project, I cried at 2AM when I was still finishing up the last bits and pieces and my room smelled like oil painting for months. I also go through my first heartbreak because my first ever boyfriend who I’ve been together with for 2 years cheated on me and lied about it for months.
I still stand strong and I know I made the right decisions.
I stand behind what I made but before I could say something or hardly anything at all, my mentor interrupts me and tells the jury that I didn’t live up to his expectations and that I didn’t do what he wanted me to do. He didn’t mention the sexual blackmail of course. He just told me I didn’t do “my job”.
I have to leave the room. I go outside and grab the windowsill. I can’t breathe. I can’t move. I burst out in tears and collapse.
I cry for days and my parents visit the principal’s office, who was by the way an old teacher of the school, and tells my parents that there’s nothing they can do with the tape recording I made because I am actually the one here violating the privacy rights if I use this as evidence. Apparently it’s illegal to record a class. And apparently this teacher knew very well what was going on.
This is it. I have no future anymore. My dreams of becoming an artist are crushed. I can’t stop crying. I wanted to go to college. I can’t talk to my friends anymore because I’m ashamed. They also don’t know about all of this because I felt filthy from the moment he made his move on me. I didn’t want my friends to look at me this way.
My mom slept by my bedside for over six months. I couldn’t redo my school because I had agoraphobia and was on antidepressants for a very long time. I felt like a failure for such a long time.
It lasts years until I am able to see my old school again, even on a picture, without hyperventilating or crying.
April 27, 2019
My name is Prudence, the artist behind the webcomic series Planet Prudence. I made it after all.
I go to my High School reunion with my friend Nathalie. She was in my class 10 years ago. She knows about my story because I finally told her about it 5 years back.
I enter the building and it feels like the place is so much smaller than I remember. The wooden benches outside were supposed to be green but the color has worn off, the buildings inside were covered with graffiti back when I went there. They are white now. Like a hospital. It’s obvious that what’s left in my memories and what I see in my nightmares are not reality anymore. It’s clear that this is what happens if you revisit a place after 10 years, yet it still feels like it all happened yesterday. It’s not what it was back in the days. It’s not the same anymore. I am not the same anymore. And I’m definitely not the same as I was when I last left this building.
I am shaking because I see a familiar face. I remember his gross face and his greasy ponytail. He’s still the same. He hasn’t aged a bit. Not one bit. I burst out in sweat. My heart starts trembling and I feel scared. I am going to faint. Nathalie mentions that it would be better to go outside for a bit. We cross him as she protects me so he wouldn’t touch me. He tries to walk between the two of us just to make his mark. He’s this narcissistic type who wants all girls for himself and everyone to notice him. He has a partner in crime though, it has been for 10 years as well. His partner is someone who has been a teacher in this school for over 30 years and teaches Dutch. I know for a fact that he kissed a girl who was 17 at that time. I knew this when I told my story to her also years after we left High School. It disgusts me to hear all these separate stories and how they line up. I guess we were too young to actually do something about it. Or maybe we couldn’t. Maybe we were too ashamed or our voice didn’t matter at that time. It was still taboo.
I am at the reunion and I see the one teacher grabbing a girl from behind and the other one hugging others inappropriately. These girls are young. They are so young.
A few moments later I see one teacher grabbing the girl’s butt. I feel disgusted and yell in my group HOW THE HELL this is still possible. HOW THE HELL HASN’T IT CHANGED IN ALL THESE YEARS?! WHY DOES NO ONE SEE WHAT THEY ARE DOING?! HOW CAN THIS SCHOOL KEEP RUINING LIVES?!
I introduce myself to some old teachers who I respect a lot. One of them was a teacher I had for science, which is a subject I used to love. The other one was a teacher I had for Graphic Design. They are both proud of my work. I needed this. I needed to go.
I left the reunion with mixed feelings. Okay, I made it as an artist without any of their approvals. I made it. But what does it matter if lives are still ruined by the sexual harassment this school is allowing by their teachers? Why is no one doing anything about it? Does it still matter that I speak up about it?
I tried one last time making sure the new principal – again, an old teacher – knew about what happened. I haven’t heard anything about it up until this day. I guess I never will and I guess they’ll keep it inside the walls of that school yet again.
I’m writing this letter because you need to know that this is not okay. Reach out, redo your year if the school doesn’t want to listen. Or f*ck it, just do it all on your own.
The school system I got introduced to as a teenager made me feel disgusted and I felt like I didn’t matter. It influenced my entire life and I was depressed for years. I can say for a fact that I survived until 4 years ago. That’s when I started seeing the therapist I see right now. That’s when I finally started to heal. That’s when I decided to pick up a pencil again.
I’m glad I survived. I’m glad I pulled through. But gosh, it was hard. It definitely was.
Honestly.. I will probably never revisit that school again because I bet that if no one acts against the actions they are allowing, nothing will ever change.