And I really shouldn’t have been forced to.
When I was seven, a little boy liked me. I was in second grade, he was in first grade. We never associated with each other, he just thought I was pretty. I didn’t like him “that way,” but that part shouldn’t matter. Not when I’m seven. No one had any business liking someone “that way” back then, because it simply wasn’t time yet. I remember being really ashamed that someone had a “crush” on me, and even more ashamed that he was a grade lower. I didn’t want this crush to be happening, I wanted it to stop and go away. I didn’t understand what I’d done wrong to bring it upon me. Can you imagine trying to actually deal with unwanted romantic advances at seven years old?
I didn’t think about boys that way yet. But a boy happened to me anyway. The 38-year-old I am now is so angry at and let down by the adults around me at the time, for indulging the infatuation of a little boy and throwing the emotional wellbeing of a little girl to wolves. I haven’t thought about this memory in a long time, probably because I wanted to forget it. But forgetting doesn’t help. Understanding what I actually took from it however, just might.
The little boy wanted to go on a date with me. His mother asked my mother if I could go to dinner with him and his family. I didn’t want to go. I was so embarrassed that the question was even being asked of me. I was so scared my friends would find out. I remember being horrified that this was progressing from teasing (from teachers) in school and out into the actual real world. While I can’t remember if I ever said “no” out loud, it wouldn’t have mattered. I was going. Totally normal, right? Make a second grade girl go on an actual fucking date with a first grade boy? How sweet.
I remember how the adults around me indulged his “crush,” seeing it as adorable. Making me feel bad for not wanting to indulge it, as if that was my responsibility as the little girl in the scenario. His little crush made me feel a subconscious-splintering amount of shame and helplessness. I was seven fucking years old. Crushes aren’t cute. They are early. I was told, at seven, just how wrong I was for being anything other than flattered.
He and his family picked me up at my house. He came to the door with flowers. I remember trying not to cry from shame when I accepted them. Six and seven years old, and already being indoctrinated with too many narratives to count. It was like we were dolls for our parents to play with. We went to a restaurant, I don’t remember what I wore but I remember feeling underdressed. The little boy “dressed up” in a little jacket and tie. I remember being deeply shamed by what he was wearing, because it was so clear that this unbearable scenario to me meant so much to him. I was at least a foot taller.
Because the date itself wasn’t difficult enough for my seven year old self to deal with, I remember he presented me with a gift at the dinner table, it was a little crystal figure of a train, about the size of a dime. I knew I was “supposed” to be grateful, but I was fighting back embarrassed tears the entire night. I barely even looked at him, though of course I was sat next to him at a table full of his family who were strangers to me. Throughout the meal, I remember being so conscious of my behavior. I was so careful to never do or say anything that would encourage this little boy to keep liking me. I was learning how to lie to avoid awkwardness and shame, instead of telling the truth in order to be treated with respect. I learned that telling the truth could hurt other people’s feelings, and I was also learning that other people’s feelings mattered more than mine.
Why did I have to participate in this? I don’t want to be here, I don’t want this. Why is this happening to me? This is wrong, this feels wrong. I’m seven and I know more about how and why this is wrong than the adults in the room. How could no one see how uncomfortable it was making me? How good of a liar could a seven year old be? And if they could see it, why didn’t anyone care? It’s the first memory I have of uncomfortable situations being forced upon me, through no fault or action of my own—it was as if my very existence invited bullshit that I was somehow responsible for dealing with. It’s a pattern that’s repeated itself for thirty years, and my hope in bringing it out of the shadowy parts of my mind is that the pattern can finally break. I didn’t deserve this, I don’t deserve it still. And I don’t deserve for my earliest experience with a boy to have any more impact on the way I view interacting with men.
I’ve been associating boys with shame, and doing anything in my power to avoid shame, because my very first experience with a boy was so shameful. I’ve associated boys with feeling helpless, because my first experience with a boy left me with no voice or agency. I’ve had a lifetime of unrequited crushes, while men I had no interest in whatsoever wouldn’t leave me the fuck alone. This “first date” was the first time I was ever shown that other people matter more than me, and it can go fuck itself now, thanks.
More than anything, what the situation taught me was that the only person whose desires deserved to be listened to were those of a six year old boy. It didn’t matter that the seven year old girl didn’t want any part of this. It was happening, because he wanted it to. The mere existence of his crush meant that I had to go along with it, no matter how much shame or discomfort it brought upon me. I don’t have any memory of how the evening ended, or what I told my parents when I got home, but I was never forced to do that again. It didn’t matter though, the impact had been made.
Little kid crushes aren’t cute. Not when kids are too young to understand that there’s another person on the other side of that crush who might not think it’s okay. Asking a little girl, “Is he your boooyyyyyfriendddd?” isn’t an okay thing to do. It imprints upon the child that boyfriends, girlfriends, and crushes are something we’re supposed to value, maybe even overvalue, rather than just letting the child develop into these feelings and maturities at their own pace. And not for nothing, with their own gender preferences, too.
I know we know this stuff now, we’re treating kids differently, and things have come a long way since 1989. But she’s still there, my seven year old. She still had to live through crippling shame that shaped her psyche in ways my 38-year-old self is still unravelling. If it wasn’t a big deal then, it wouldn’t hurt this much now. Things being better for kids today will never erase how not-okay they sometimes were back then. And rather than hide this memory in some dusty box in a subconscious closet, I think it’s time to take it out, talk to the little girl who lived through it, and say I’m sorry.
Shani Silver is a humor essayist and podcaster. You can read all her Medium essays here.