Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Private Parts
by Jennifer Margulis

Becca’s mom wouldn’t let her walk through the park to school. So when I met Becca at the corner of Gibbs and Center Street we crossed Center, walked up the hill, and took a right on Pleasant Street, skirting the park, walking the long way past parked cars and houses.

Becca’s mom thought the park was dangerous, but one day, on the way to school and nowhere near the park, we saw a man in a parked car, his pants down, his flaccid member exposed to the morning sun. He looked like he was sleeping but I thought I saw his eyes open as we passed.

When Becca went to piano lessons after school, I walked home by myself, through the park.

One day I was walking by the basketball courts.

“Hello little boy,” a man with shaggy brown hair called out to me as he rested a basketball on his hip.

“I’m not a little boy,” I giggled. “I’m a girl.”

“Really?” He cocked his head to one side as he looked at me, exaggerating his disbelief. “You look like a little boy to me,” he said matter-of-factly.

I stopped walking I was so surprised. I had three older brothers and spent a lot of time around boys. I liked climbing trees and playing chase. I was a tomboy, maybe, but no one had ever told me I looked like a boy.

“Can you prove you’re not?” the man asked. He seemed genuinely interested and sincerely baffled.

Could I? I thought as hard as I could and chose the most definitive piece of information my first-grade mind could settle on.

“I don’t like trucks!” I announced, sure this would resolve the matter.

The stranger remained unconvinced.

What happened after that? Maybe I pointed out my shoulder-length hair. But there wasn’t anything else girly about me. I had holes in the knees of my dungarees. Pink was my least favorite color. I never played with Barbies.

It was the stranger who came up with a definitive way I could prove I wasn’t a boy. I could show him the one thing I had that boys didn’t! This seemed completely logical—it was such a perfect solution to an otherwise vexing problem that I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it myself.

I sat on a bench and pulled down my pants just enough so he could see.

“See!” I was happy to have proven myself right. “I’m not a boy!”

But suddenly the air changed. He told me he would have to go to his car to get a dime for me, he asked me to come with him, and said he’d drive me home.

That’s when a terrible feeling of shame came over me. I knew—I had been warned by my parents and the other adults—that you should never get into a car with a stranger.

Now I was scared. I said no thank you, I didn’t want the dime, and I didn’t need a ride. “I live close by,” I mumbled, waving my hand in the air as if to point in the direction of my house. Even as I said it I worried I was saying too much. There was something wrong. He had tricked me. He was a bad man. I didn’t want him to know where I lived.

I walked away as fast as I could. As soon as I was up the side of the hill with some distance between me and the basketball court I started sprinting. I still remember how my heart—my proud heart that had made me do a shameful bad thing without even realizing it just to prove a point—pounded in my chest.

I didn’t want my parents to be angry at me so I never told them. Becca and I never talked about the man in the car with his privates exposed. Those were big secrets for such little girls to carry. 

“You can tell me anything,” I remind my daughters as I tuck them into bed, smooth their hair back from their faces, and kiss their little cheeks. “Even if someone tells you not to tell me, you can. Even if you think I’ll be mad. Even if it’s the middle of the night and you have to wake me up.”

I can’t protect my children from everything bad in the world, but I can do something my parents didn’t: help them feel safe enough to share their secrets.
Jennifer Margulis, author of Why Babies Do That and editor of Toddler: Real-Life Stories of Those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent, Tiny People We Love, will be spending next year in West Africa with her husband and three children on a Fulbright Fellowship. Read more about her at ToddlerTrueStories.com