top of page

Approaching the Stairs

By Patricia McTiernan

PROMPT—No one noticed ...

At the time, I didn’t think of it as an assault. But I did wonder if it would have happened if I took the bus. I was a “walker,” that category of public school kid who got to and from school on her own two feet. And it happened one day at the start of my walk home.

The walk to junior high—seventh and eighth grades—was one of the longest school walks of my childhood. My neighborhood friends all went to Catholic school, by bus. My sister was in high school. Kids I had walked with to grammar school were not on the route to the junior high. So my walk was solitary, but not lonely. For a painfully shy adolescent, it was a calming prelude to the stress of school and a quiet reward at day’s end.

When I say I was shy, an example from this time in my life comes to mind: One morning, about a quarter of the way to school, I realized I had forgotten to bring a pen. Although I had loaned many a pen to others, I was too shy to ask to borrow one from someone else. I turned back home, heart pounding. Better to race back for a pen (or two) and risk being late than to have to ask someone for help.

Usually, though, my walk was pretty uneventful. I left my family’s Cape Cod style house on a quarter-acre lot and headed east, passing a dozen or more homes identical to ours except for the color of the shingles and the style of fence. At the end of my street, I took a right onto Hawthorne Avenue, a busy main road. A short distance on, I took a left at a residential street that was, for cars, a dead end, but for walkers offered a stairway down to the school grounds.

I took the same route in reverse at the end of the day. When I reached that stairway, I was free of the social anxiety that plagued me at school.

At some point when I was in eighth grade, a seventh grader—whom I did not know—became obsessed with me for some reason. Over the course of several weeks, beginning in late winter, he started trying to engage me in conversation by yelling things at me as I walked away from the school building at the end of the day.

The phrase I most remember is “Hey, girl in the white coat.” I had a white, knee-length coat with toggle buttons and a fake lambs-wool collar. It was the early 1970s, and I’m sure I thought I looked pretty cool in it. Yet I’m also certain I never intended to attract comment beyond “nice coat.”

I ignored this kid for weeks. This is where my shyness worked in my favor, or so I thought. Be as small and quiet as can be, and no one will notice you. I had no classes or interaction with him other than when I walked home, so I figured he’d just go away.

I was tall for my age, and this kid was not only younger than I was but shorter as well, so I never thought I’d be physically in danger. He was often riding his bicycle in slow circles near the stairway, two or three of his little friends nearby, hanging on his every comment. I made of point of not looking at him, but in my memory, he was what my mother would have called nondescript: bushy, brown hair, stocky build. A pretty average 13-year-old.

The harassment reached its peak in spring. I had shed the white coat for a shorter jacket. One afternoon, as I approached the stairs, he stood in my path, reached out his hand, and grabbed at my crotch.

His little friends laughed as I swatted his hand away like it was a dog’s nose. I was wearing pants, probably jeans, but while the violation was minimal, it triggered my fight or flight response. I remember wondering what I would do if he followed me up the stairs. I didn’t know what else to do, so up I went, just like every day, perhaps a bit faster.

In my memory, that incident marked the last time the kid bothered me. Did he go on to bother—or worse—other girls? More than likely.

What I know is what so many have said, especially over these past few years: Often, girls and women don’t report such things, sometimes because the details sound so ridiculous, sometimes because, like me, they don’t want to call attention to themselves. My parents were already overly protective. The last thing I wanted was to be in the principal’s office with this kid, telling this story. I never told anyone. Until now.


Patricia McTiernan is a writer and editor who, now in retirement, feels fortunate to be able to divide her time between the Greater Boston area and Little Cayman, BWI, where she takes pictures of wildlife solely for her own amusement. Her essays have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Examined Life Journal, and The Sun (Readers Write).


bottom of page