As a senior at Portland High School in 1997, I starred in a two-person short play called “Sure Thing” opposite the school’s best actor. While my co-star went on to act in college, this was the peak of my acting career. The David Ives play is a comic piece about a man and woman going from chance encounter to falling in love through a series of pickup lines. Only one of the words of the script needed to be changed – when my character Betty said, “all you want to do is (F-word),” I was to replace the F-word with “screw.” On the final night of the performance, however, in front of approximately 10 people, I used the original word. I thought it was an artistic expression and made the play more authentic. School officials did not agree.

The next day an overhead announcement summoned me out of Honors English and into a school administrator’s office. He suspended me, but the specifics did not stick with me. Was it one, two or three days? However, what he said next still haunts me 20 years later as a grown woman. With a closed door and just the two of us present, the male administrator leaned toward me and said, “If I wanted to hear that kind of language out of a girl, I’d drive down to Route 1.”

For those not familiar, his use of “Route 1” most likely did not refer to the scenic Maine highway with lobster shacks but to the infamous stretch in Saugus, Massachusetts, with strip clubs and motels known for prostitution. I was the bad girl. I was dirty. While I couldn’t say the F-word as written in a school play at night, he could covertly call a 17-year-old student a whore to her face in his office.

A classmate whose mom worked at the ACLU gave me her number so they could get involved in the suspension. I felt too much shame, though, to follow up. As strong as I was in my teens, the administrator silenced me. No one questioned the suspension. My embarrassed family told me I couldn’t be seen out in downtown Portland while suspended, so I hid out alone at the Maine Mall.

Last week, when I read the Cape Elizabeth High School principal’s letter to the community, as reported by the Portland Press Herald and forwarded to me by friends, it took me straight back to 1997. His patriarchal tone. That the girls made “bad” choices. Girls should not speak a certain way, and they needed to be banished from the school. (To be clear, I am not commenting on the alleged events that precipitated the notes in the bathroom.)

While I believe Maine has changed a lot since 1997, the Cape Elizabeth High School principal’s suspension of young women – and his defense – reminds me that this generation’s movement faces an uphill battle against the patriarchy. I wonder why derogatory and damaging words boys say about girls in high school bathrooms are considered “locker room talk” rather than bullying.

A normally outspoken friend in Cape begged me not to write this piece. She said morale is already low, and additional media attention could further upset their outstanding teachers.

But this time, I will speak up. Rather than being upset that CEHS is where my sons will attend in 10 years, I am proud. Cape Elizabeth is part of the change, the dialogue, the movement. The ACLU is fully involved. The suspended girls and their families aren’t slinking away. They are not silenced; instead, they are fighting back. The Press Herald reported the girls’ suspension immediately on Page 1 (“Cape principal defends response to allegations of sexual assault,” Oct. 10), not 20 years later in an op-ed like mine. The attention forced the principal in Cape to defend his decision. Meanwhile, I looked up the administrator who suspended me, and he’s now a superintendent in another district. He has been rewarded.

I hope the families at the center of this controversy will one day believe that their children, typically sheltered in a town with one traffic light, were part of something so much more significant. I, for one, am grateful.


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