Emmanuel College was still a women’s college when I arrived for freshman orientation in August of 1982. Sargent Harrington ran the security overview. A beefy, avuncular, Boston Irish former cop with piercing blue eyes, you could see that his intentions were good.
“Girls,” he told us, “if you wanna be safe, you gotta be scared. You gotta expect danger at any time, and you gotta have a weapon on you at all times.”
He taught us how to make artillery out of innocuous objects: we practiced holding our keys in between each finger, claw-like, and learned to always aim for the eyes. We learned that our elbows can be potent weapons, that we should be willing to jab hard, that we should kick, and aim for the balls. He encouraged us to always carry a lit cigarette when we went out, whether we smoked or not, because we could use it to burn a would-be rapist in the face, thereby thwarting an attack. He never said the word rape, of course. He was far too polite for that. (And anyway, in 1982, the language for date rape didn’t yet exist. The irony, of course, is that for many of us, the starkest threats didn’t come from strangers.)
Sargent Harrington’s lessons had a lasting effect on my life. For the 8 years that I lived in Boston, I never went out alone at night unless I could afford a cab, which wasn’t often. I try not to wonder too much about what I missed in all those years, because if I dwell on that, I get angry, it shuts me down.
I’ve been thinking about this because my fellow writer and former workshop companion Louise Yeiser McAlpin has just published an essay called “Protect” in the Ampersand Review. It’s a poignant, gripping piece, and it haunted me even when I first read it as a rough draft. I read it again online yesterday, and it reminded me of the fear that I was taught to live with, the first lesson of my college life. How many women carry this fear, this anger that we always have to keep at bay?