Chapter 1: Tracy Flick - 1 - Tracy Flick
There was another front-page story in the paper. For months it had been an almost daily occurrence, one powerful man after another toppled from his pedestal, exposed as a sexual predator: Harvey Weinstein in his bathrobe, Bill Cosby with his quaaludes, Matt Lauer and his secret button; the list went on and on. It was a satisfying spectacle—a small measure of belated justice—but it was troubling too, because it kept stirring up memories I would have preferred to leave alone, as if I were being asked to explain myself to the world, though I wasn’t exactly sure who was doing the asking.
That morning’s scandal was celebrity-free, and for me, at least, even more disturbing than usual: a “beloved” drama teacher at a fancy boarding school accused of having “inappropriate sexual and romantic relationships” with several former students, the allegations stretching all the way back to the 1980s. The teacher—he was retired now, living quietly in Tulum—denied the charges; a lawsuit had been filed against the school, its trustees, and three different headmasters who had “abetted the decades-long cover-up.” There was a black-and-white yearbook photo of the teacher in his younger days—he was standing onstage, boyish and shaggy-haired, directing a student production of Oklahoma!—along with color photos of two of his accusers. The women were attractive and successful, both around my own age—a dermatologist and an art historian—and they gazed at the camera with eyes that were somehow steely and wounded at the same time. He groomed me so skillfully, the art historian said. He told me exactly what I wanted to hear. The dermatologist had a bleaker assessment: He stole my innocence. It pretty much ruined my life.
“Mom,” Sophia said. “Are you okay?”
I looked up from the newspaper. My ten-year-old daughter was watching me closely from across the table, the way she often did, as if she were trying to figure out who I was and what was going on in my head. I’d never had to do that with my own mother.
“I’m fine, honey.”
“It’s just—you looked a little angry.”
“I’m not angry. That’s just how my face gets when I’m thinking.”
She considered this for a second or two, then wrinkled her nose.
“There’s a name for that,” she said. “It’s not very nice, though.”
“So I’ve heard.” I glanced at the wall clock. “Finish your oatmeal, sweetie. We need to get moving.”
Aside from the handful of people who knew about it at the time—my mother, the Principal, my guidance counselor—I never talked to anyone about what happened to me in high school. Until the past few months, I hardly even thought about it anymore, because what was the point? It was ancient history, a brief misguided affair—that’s the wrong word, I know, but it’s the one I’ve always used—with my sophomore English teacher, a few regrettable weeks of my teenage life. It wasn’t that big a deal. We made out a few times, and had sex exactly once. I realized it was a mistake, and I ended it. My life wasn’t ruined. I didn’t get pregnant, didn’t get my heart broken, didn’t miss a step. I graduated at the top of my class, and went to Georgetown on a full scholarship.
It was Mr. Dexter who couldn’t handle the breakup, and kept pestering me to get back together. My mother found a note he wrote on one of my essays—it was a little unhinged—and she went to the Principal, and Mr. Dexter vanished from the school, and from my life. It was all very sudden and surgical. I guess you could say the system worked.
As a grown-up—as a parent and an educator—I had no doubt that what he did was wrong, and that his punishment was just. In the privacy of my own heart, though, I couldn’t manage to hate him for it, or even judge him that harshly. There was a mitigating factor at work, an extenuating circumstance. It didn’t exonerate him, exactly, but it made him less culpable in my eyes, more worthy of sympathy or compassion, whatever you want to call it.
That circumstance was me.
The thing you had to understand—it seemed so obvious to me at the time, so central to my identity—is that I wasn’t a normal high school girl. I was unusually smart and ambitious, way too mature for my own good, to the point where I had trouble making friends with my peers, or even connecting with them in a meaningful way. I felt like an adult long before I came of legal age, and it had always seemed to me that Mr. Dexter simply perceived this truth before anyone else, and had treated me accordingly, which was exactly the way I’d wanted to be treated. How could I blame him for that?
That was my narrative, the one I’d lived with for a very long time, but it was starting to feel a little shaky. You can’t keep reading these stories, one after the other, all these high-achieving young women exploited by teachers and mentors and bosses, and keep clinging to the idea that your own case was unique. In fact, it had become pretty clear to me that that was how it worked—you got tricked into feeling more exceptional than you actually were, like the normal rules no longer applied.
It gnawed at me that summer, the possibility that I’d misjudged my own past, that maybe I’d been a little more ordinary than I would have liked to believe. But even if that were true, there wasn’t anything I could do about it. There was no injustice to expose, no serial abuser living it up in a tropical paradise.
Mr. Dexter didn’t just lose his job because of me; he lost his wife and a lot of his friends and his self-respect, and he never really got back on track. After he stopped teaching, he managed his family’s hardware store until it went out of business, and then he became a home inspector. He got married a second time in his forties, but that hadn’t worked out, either. I knew this because he wrote me a letter in 2014. He was in the hospital at the time, being treated for an aggressive form of prostate cancer, and wanted to apologize to me before it was too late. He said he still thought about me sometimes, and wished we’d met under different circumstances.
I’m not a bad person, he said. I just made some horrible decisions.
He was fifty-five when he died. As far as I was concerned, he could rest in peace.
Sophia was attending soccer camp that week at Green Meadow High School, where I served as Assistant Principal. I pulled up in the horseshoe driveway by the practice field, idling just long enough to watch her sign in with a clipboard-wielding counselor, and then trot onto the grass, where she was greeted with a fanfare of happy shrieks and joyful shimmies from the other girls, as if they hadn’t seen her for years. I felt a familiar pang of separation, the melancholy awareness that my daughter’s real life—at least her favorite parts—took place in my absence.
I’d never been like that as a child, a valued member of the pack, showered with affection, protected by the safety of numbers. I’d always been a party of one, set apart from the other kids by the conviction—I possessed it from a very early age—that I was destined for something bigger than they were, a future that mattered. I didn’t believe that anymore—how could I, my life being what it was—but I remembered the feeling, almost like I’d been anointed by some higher authority, and I missed it sometimes. It had been an adventure, growing up like that, knowing in my blood that something amazing was waiting for me in the distance, and that I just needed to keep moving forward in order to claim it.
The only thing waiting for me that morning was my cramped office in the empty high school, the unceasing demands of a job I’d outgrown. It was an important position, don’t get me wrong—I had a lot on my shoulders—but it was hard to stomach being the number two again, after savoring an all-too-fleeting taste of real authority.
Three years earlier, I’d taken over as Acting Principal after my boss, Jack Weede, had suffered a near-fatal heart attack. He was sixty-five at the time, and everyone assumed he would pack it in, and that my promotion would become permanent. But Jack surprised us all by coming back; he couldn’t let go of the reins. It was his call and I didn’t hold it against him—retirement had never struck me as much of a prize, either—but the ordeal had taken a toll on him, and a lot of his workload ended up landing on good old Tracy’s desk.
Even on a slow day in early August, there was more than enough to keep me busy. I started by combing through the analytics from our most recent round of assessment tests, trying to spot gaps in our curriculum, and offer some low-impact, last-minute suggestions for addressing them. We’d been slipping a bit in the statewide rankings—not badly, but just enough to cause some alarm—and we needed to take some concrete measures to turn that around before it became a serious problem.
After that, I scoured a stack of old résumés in search of a long-term substitute for Jeannie Kim, our popular (if slightly overrated) AP Physics teacher, who was taking maternity leave in January. An incompetent sub isn’t a huge problem if they’re only in contact with the students for a day or two, but Jeannie was going to be out for an entire semester.
If I’d left it up to Jack, he would’ve waited until the last minute, hired the first warm body he could get his hands on, and then shrugged it off if something went wrong. It’s hard to find a good sub, Tracy. There’s a reason those people don’t have real jobs. But I wasn’t about to let that happen, not if I could help it. Our students deserved better. It was easy to forget, when you were a grown-up and high school was safely in the past, how it felt to be a captive audience, the way time could stand still in a classroom, and one bad teacher could poison your entire life.