One of the most challenging things I’ve had to deal with as both a singer and a sub has been negotiating with my sexuality in a way that serves only to empower me.
For a while, I used to dress up to go to school. I would wear dresses, heels, jewelry and try to look my best.
Then, one day while serving a long-term assignment at Wilmington Middle School, I found a computer mouse with the words, “Ms. Cervantes is a porn star” etched on it in the computer room where I was teaching a low-level English class.
I was stunned. This was my first year teaching at LAUSD, and I had never had any of that treatment while subbing with ABC Unified.
I was frustrated. I didn’t know how to find a happy medium between dressing up and getting too much negative attention, or dressing down and getting mistaken for a student. I certainly wanted to express myself with my clothes but I didn’t want to make relating to my students more difficult than it should be. At the same time, I didn’t want to invest in clothing that wasn’t really “me.”
In the five years that I have served in the classroom, I have learned to mute my sexuality in the most exaggerated fashion to maintain students’ attention on the lessons instead of on my body. I was striving to protect myself from harassment and trying my best to make my life easier.
I went from wearing cute dresses and heels to wearing sneakers, boots and pants or leggings with sweaters or dresses with long cardigans on top, or clothing that resembled outerwear. I also stopped wearing makeup to school and rarely if ever went out of my way to do my hair, unless it was braided. I muted my femininity so much that one day, while I was serving a long-term assignment at Banning in an Algebra class, one of my students asked me, “Ms. C, are you a lesbian?”
I replied, “What makes you ask me such a personal question?”
The student replied, “Well, just the way you dress and how you don’t wear makeup and the way that you act, Ms.”
I didn’t really know what to say, but a part of me did rejoice knowing that I no longer was being accused of looking like a porn star like I had in years prior while teaching at Wilmington.
At the same time, I secretly wondered to myself: “Is this what it’s come to? I’m damned if I do, and damned if I don’t?”
Nevertheless, I have suffered my share of sexual harassment, from both male and female students alike.
While teaching at Cerritos, the harassment was benign. There was an Indian student in my long term AP Spanish class who was constantly making up cheesy pickup lines for me in class, much to the delight and amusement of his peers. This I never took seriously. However, while subbing for LAUSD, I had to remain guarded and develop protective mechanisms for the sake of preserving my job.
One student, for instance, would purposely ditch class around the same time each day while I was serving a long term at Banning teaching Algebra 1, and wait until I noticed he was lingering outside of my front door before emulating Aaliyah’s body rolls until the entire class was rolling with laughter.
Another student once came with a ukulele and serenaded me at my door, with the words, “Ms. Cervantes, you’re so beautiful, I love you…”
Now, this was innocent enough, until it wasn’t. One day, it escalated to him inappropriately and publicly asking me out in front of the class and I was forced to send him with me to the office to talk to the vice principal about sexual harassment. I had never had to see an administrator about being sexually harassed (I decided not to report the computer mouse incident at Wilmington), and my student did his very best to make me feel as if I was foolish and unreasonable for seeking help with stopping him, until the vice principal defended me and showed her support.
In another instance, a student was waiting in the office after school and as soon as he saw me coming in, he’s like “Hi Ms. Cervantes, when are you gonna answer my DM?”
A few administrators gave me sideways glances and I didn’t hesitate to ignore them and give him a confused reply.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, and you better watch the way you talk to me from now on.”
I waited until I went home before checking my Instagram message requests. Without any sense of worry or remorse, I replied to his message:
“You have some nerve speaking to me so casually like that in the middle of the front office, as if we’re cool like that. Are you trying to get me fired? Speak to me like that again and you’ll get my foot shoved straight up your ass. Understood?”
The student apologized and offered to leave roses at my classroom door as a form of apology. Clearly he still didn’t understand the situation, but I chose not to reply and to block him instead.
I finally got rid of him on his senior year (these random instances of harassment had been happening since I’d had him as a freshman in an Algebra class):
He came to my doorway while class was in session and the situation was amicable at first. Then I cheerfully asked him what he’d be doing that weekend.
“Oh, I’m coming to see you, Ms. What time should I show up?”
My classroom fell apart in laughter while I silently seethed, smiling sweetly on the outside.
“Hmm. That’s considered sexual harassment, and I’m going to need you to make it up to me. Come in, get on your knees and apologize, or I’ll be forced to report you to the administration.”
At this, he balked and ran off. I never saw him again.
This isn’t the end of it. My worst case of sexual harassment was actually at a credit recovery high school out in South Central LA.
I remember wearing a fleece plaid coat, a pair of black jeans and white high top vans with my hair down.
I was walking through the classroom, examining work and making sure that kids were progressing, when a student suddenly asked, “Ms. Cervantes, how old are you?”
I replied, “Old enough.”
At this, he immediately snapped back with “Old enough for this DICK.”
He grinned as some students responded with gasps while others couldn’t hold back their derisive laughter.
I looked at him and, with a look that displayed a maximum level of disgust and annoyance, I shouted back, “SHUT THE FUCK UP.”
This was the first and only time that I cursed at a student. Interestingly, the student, did, in fact, close his mouth and did not address me again until the next day, when he saw me come in and said, “Ms., I don’t like you nomore.”
I looked up at him, amused by his statement. “And why is that?”
“You embarrassed me, Ms. That wasn’t cool.”
“Well, you sexually harassed me, and I didn’t like that either. Maybe if you hadn’t sexually harassed me I wouldn’t have had to tell you to shut the fuck up. So how about we do this. How about you show me the respect I deserve and I treat you with the same? Sound good?”
And that was the end of that.
Honestly, in the five years that I’ve been in the classroom, I have learned that it really doesn’t matter what I wear. The kids, if they have never been trained to respect women, will disrespect her no matter what she wears.
So, what I have committed myself to doing is educating my classrooms about what sexual harassment and rape culture are and how to stop the behavior before it starts. I have learned that I shouldn’t have to be so cautious about what I wear to school out of fear that my students will say or do things to make me feel uncomfortable and then leave me no choice but to 1) report them or 2) call them out in ways that will compromise my integrity and professionalism as an educator.
I can’t tell you how many times I have been told by grown men that they wished they had a teacher that looked like me when they were in school, and I have even been in a radio interview where I was asked about whether I’d ever crossed the line with a student before.
I am disgusted by these statements and questions, because they recreate the disgusting fantasy of pedophilia between teachers and students, both male and female, which is then played out in reality, traumatizing young minds into adulthood.
I, unfortunately was a survivor of sexual harassment by a teacher when I was in high school and because of this, I am extremely careful about how I relate to students and even how I choose to portray myself to them. Because of this I am very careful about my image in photos and music videos. In fact, my last “sexy” public photos taken, including a shot in nothing but pasties, were shot shortly before I began working at ABC Unified, and were taken down in order to protect me and my reputation at school. For a while, Rain Bisou was a stage name that I created in order to have more creative freedom but my alter ego wasn’t kept a secret for long and I found myself needing to censor my image in order to keep my students from gossiping and making rumors up about me that would eventually reach the ears of the administrators. This happened to me while teaching at Wilmington Middle. I thought I was being careful about my image and somehow, my videos were still too racey for my students to handle and the administrators threatened me with termination if I didn’t make all of my social media profiles private, a request that served to injure my progress as an artist.
The truth is, being an educator means holding yourself in a higher standard in your image and with the way that you behave. I haven’t even mentioned my status as a mom yet.
But honestly, I am glad that my position as a teacher has restrained me from being too liberal about my image. I have taken it as a sign from God that I am not meant to market myself in the same way as many other female artists in the industry today, many of them using their sexuality as a form of luring men to follow them, while my image highlights my beauty but doesn’t make sex my selling point.
And yet, this doesn’t make me look down on women who do choose to express their sexuality while also being awakened, intelligent and business-oriented. We need women celebrating their sexuality and schooling men about respecting them, no matter what they choose to wear, because maybe then finally men will stop thinking of certain forms of dress as women wearing a “hoe’s uniform” and will instead see it as an alternative form of displaying divine beauty.
We still have a long way to go, and it’s certainly not ok for me or any woman or girl to endure sexual harassment in the workplace or anywhere else, for that matter. So, to my students: if a girl is being harassed for what she chooses to wear, defend her. Girls, stick together. Don’t slut shame other girls or make them feel bad for how they choose to show up to school or life. Let go of your need to judge. We are all sisters. Boys, treat your peers like you would a younger female sibling…we need respect and protection, not harassment and objectification. This goes for your teacher, too.