Over the years, my dad has taught me lots of things. He taught me how to cut a ribbon at an angle so that it doesn’t fray; he taught me the best way to squeeze a spot so that it doesn't leave a scar; he taught me how to drive and how to check the oil in my car. He taught me the longest word in the English dictionary and he taught me about the Earth’s gravity using an orange.
But above all those important things, the most valuable thing he ever taught me occurred when I was sixteen years old. I didn’t realise quite how valuable it was until I was in my thirties.
It was 2001 and I spent my school holidays working at a children’s nursery at the end of our road. I’d left the house just before 8:00 and walked to work in my uniform. About half way there, I spotted a man across the road, working on some gas pipes that were exposed on the pavement. He looked up from his work and he saw me, and I knew. I knew he’d say something to me. I looked down, around, away, everywhere but at him (how is it that someone can make you feel self-conscious about simply existing?) – and I thought Please just leave me alone. But in fact, he didn’t shout across the street. Not this guy. He bowled across the road, wiping his hands on his dirty jeans.
“Have you got the time, love?” he asked, now standing just two feet away.
I shook my head. “No, sorry, I haven’t,” I told him.
He smirked – I can still picture it now - “You’ve got nice tits though,” he said, as he lifted his arms and grabbed my chest hard with both hands. It was so fast and so unexpected that I didn’t even react. I watched him walk back across the road, laughing to himself and then I put my head down and carried on walking. There was nobody around. Nobody saw a thing.
I had a vague sense that what had just happened was bad, but I had only two minutes to process it before I arrived at the nursery door. I didn’t say anything straight away. I smiled and said hello and then started my duties, and it was only after breakfast that I said quietly to one of the ladies,“Something bad happened this morning.”
They were shocked and sympathetic and urged me to go back home to tell someone, apart from one lady whose words of comfort were, “Oh it used to happen all the time in the sixties.”
My dad was still at home when I arrived back less than an hour later. He asked what the matter was, why was I back so soon? I blurted it all out without even thinking about the words. Before I’d even finished, he was utterly enraged.
“He did what? That’s it, I’m calling the police!” he said, snatching up the phone. He’s a bit like that, my dad. He has a tendency to act or speak too fast, before his brain has had the time to do the thinking part.
“DAD!” I yelled, utterly mortified. “You will NOT!”
“Yes I bloody will!” he said, and I could hear the phone ringing as I pulled at the cord.
“This is so embarrassing!” I cried.
But it was too late. He told me that the police were on their way, and I watched him pace up and down in the front room, pulling at his hair. In that instant I wanted to take it all back. I wanted the ground to swallow me up. I was convinced that the police would call us both time wasters once they heard the actual story. I thought my dad would get into trouble. What a fuss about nothing. What a silly little girl.
“It’s not like he raped me,” I said, panicking. Because people told you about that as a teenager; we all knew that was bad. But they didn’t tell you about the other stuff. Everything else was a bit... blurry.
But the police came, two of them, and to my utter disbelief, they were on my side. They said my dad was right to report it and they would have done the same for their daughters; this was after I apologised over and over and over again. They took a statement and a description of the man. They took my clothes, the white nurse’s dress that I wore for my uniform that had his grubby handprints on it, and popped it in a plastic bag. They drove me around the building site where he was contracted, in their car with tinted windows, and they spoke to the site manager to find out his name. The female police office promised me they’d find him and she promised me it was worth her time.
She kept her promise, PC Renata Hobson, and months later, after it went to court and I correctly identified him in a line up, he was convicted of sexual assault. The evidence was all over my dress. He was put on the sex offenders register and given 100 hours community service. The police revealed that he’d been tried for similar crimes in the past but he hadn’t been convicted due to lack of evidence. They were celebrating the result, and yet I felt guilty. I remember thinking, He probably has a wife and a family. He’s probably lost his job. Even after all that, I still felt like I’d overreacted.
But my dad stood by his original word. “Katy, that sort of thing is not okay.”
It wasn’t until a couple of years ago, when I was 30, that I fully appreciated what my dad did for me. I was reading a book (Laura Bates' "Everyday Sexism") in which there are numerous accounts from women who told family members about their experiences of sexual assault and harassment and were laughed at, blamed, humiliated or completely disbelieved. They describe the burden of carrying the shame of that into adulthood, and the impact it had on their relationships and their place in society. It gave them a completely warped message about what was acceptable and what was not acceptable, and what they had to write off as inevitable - beyond their control.
Reading those accounts, it dawned on me that it was because of my dad that that didn’t happen to me. He believed me, and took me seriously and he made sure I was heard. He made me feel powerful. What more valuable message could you give to a sixteen year old girl? It meant that when I started university, and got a job and met boyfriends, and went out into the world, I was equipped with this amazing resource, to differentiate between what was okay and what was not okay; to know what I was worth and to have the courage to stand up for myself. It wasn’t fuzzy. There were no blurred lines.
So, Dad, I want you to know how grateful I am for doing what you did all those years ago, even though I didn’t appreciate it at the time. I can’t imagine how different my outlook might have been had you not. This is my Father’s Day gift to you – a public show of gratitude for the most important life lesson you could have ever taught me. Happy Father’s Day.
P.S. I've also got you some socks.