Hebrew School was a tough place for me to be even before I met Elliot. Most of my classmates had been there learning to read and write and speak and sing in our ancient language for years before I even started. My parents had dropped me in at age 11, out of a sudden urgent desire for me to be ready to have a Bat Mitzvah by the time I turned 13. So there I was, after my regular New York public school day and on weekends, struggling to learn the basics while everyone around me either overtly or more quietly doubted my ability to catch up. I was not popular at all. I had two friends, Lauren and Bev, but aside from them, I was the butt of everyone’s jokes. I found crude drawings of my fat body under my desk. A kid named Andrew kicked my shins as hard as he could every time he walked past me, until my legs bruised a deep purple ringed in green. Popular girls would whisper, giggle, and then get quiet when I came near. It sucked.
One afternoon during my first few months there, the teacher told me a Hebrew High School student was going to tutor me. I walked out into the hall and there was Elliot. He was about 17 and very, very large. I remember feeling a surge of relief when I met him. First, because I’d thought I was the fattest kid in Hebrew School. And second, because I assumed his size would make him less likely to pick on me. He led me down a long hall, past the auditorium, and up some stairs to a dingy little storage closet. Inside was a desk and two chairs. On the wall was a painting of a Rabbi, and boxes of dusty prayer books crowded the rest of the room. He started going over some worksheets with me, but it quickly became clear that I didn’t even have enough of a grasp on the alphabet to begin the class assignment. So instead, he started drawing out tic-tac-toe grids and hangman games on the back of the paper and said we could do that instead. I was relieved, but that relief turned to discomfort when he wrapped an arm around my waist and pulled me onto his lap. I didn’t know what to do. I was embarrassed, both for me and for him. Part of me wondered if he was confused and thought I was a little kid or something. I was still a little kid in many ways, but not in a way where sitting on a stranger’s lap felt good. I was scared. I stayed still for a while, and then I asked if I could go back to class. He said okay.
The next week, I was sent out to meet with Elliot again. This time, he pulled me onto his lap as soon as the door was shut. I knew I didn’t want to be there. I felt claustrophobic and nauseous. I asked him if I could sit in my own chair. He asked if I wanted to play games or do work. I said play games. He said if I wasn’t going to do my work, then I had to sit on his lap. So that’s what I did. I sat on his lap, playing tic-tac-toe while he rummaged around under my shirt as if I were a couch with loose change hidden under the cushions.
Back at home, I begged my mom not to make me go to Hebrew School anymore. I told her that I hated it, that the kids were mean, that I wasn’t any good at it. She told me it was very expensive and my tuition had already been paid and my dad would be very disappointed if I dropped out. So I just kept on going. I never knew when Elliot would be back for me. Days would go by and I wouldn’t see him at all. But of course, one day, he finally did come back.
That day, as soon as we were alone, I told him flat out that I didn’t want to sit on his lap anymore. He started crying, and begged me to sit with him, to sit on him, so I did. He held on to me tightly and cried into the back of my neck while his fingertips roamed across my preteen chest in desperate little circles. He told me I had to lose weight, right away, or my life would be as miserable as his was. He wanted me to promise him that I would go on a diet, and threatened that if I didn’t do what he said, I would die alone and my tombstone would read, “Here Lies Emily, Nobody Ever Loved Her.” He cried and cried while I totally numbed out. I started counting prayer books (22, 23, 24…). Then I stared at the Rabbi painting, wondering who had painted him and when. Maybe he was somebody’s grandfather or something. My dad’s grandfather had been a Rabbi back in Europe. I wondered if my great-grandfather had looked like that.
Afterward, I went back to class. At the break, I asked my friends Lauren and Bev to meet me in the bathroom. I told them what was going on and neither of them seemed shocked. Lauren said Elliot had tried to get her to sit on his lap once and she had just told him no. I wondered why she had been able to stop it and I hadn’t. Bev said I could copy off of her paper for tests so I wouldn’t need extra help. It sounded like a good idea.
The next time the teacher called on me to go out into the hall with Elliot, I told her I didn’t want to. When she asked why, I said I didn’t need extra help anymore. She looked skeptical, but she just said okay. I never had to go with Elliot again. I don’t know if it was the cheating that saved me, or if my friends had tipped her off that something was going on, or if she just had good instincts. But I was so relieved, I let myself cry a little bit.
At the time the Elliot stuff was going on, I was really confused and ashamed. I didn’t understand why I hadn’t been able to stand up for myself. I wondered if secretly I had wanted the attention and blamed myself for being an easy target. As an adult, my perspective is much different. I know that my 11-year-old self worked things out the best way she could. I may not have felt like I could reach out directly to parents and teachers, but I did reach out to my friends, and they helped me break out of my isolation enough to ask for what I needed. Even now, at 41, I sometimes feel too soft, like I’m an easy mark for coercion, or just too vulnerable. And my coping strategies in many ways are still the same as they were when I was 11—I ask my friends, “Is this okay? Is this right? What should I do about this? What would you do?” I confide in them without shame and I listen to what they have to say. And sometimes, that’s all I really need.
Emily Rems is the Managing Editor of BUST Magazine in NY. She is also a music and film commentator for New York’s NPR affiliate WNYC and her nonfiction writing has appeared in the anthologies Cassette from my Ex and Zinester’s Guide to NYC as well as in Tom Tom Magazine and on The Awl. In 2014, she was a featured panelist at Out of the Binders, a symposium on women writers in N.Y.C., and was a speaker on The New School’s panel Music, Media, and The F Word. In 2015, she was invited to read her fiction as part of the Lamprophonic Emerging Writers’ Series in N.Y.C.