Note: I reported this and more to an investigator at Jackson Lewis, who told me she relayed my concerns to ISS's attorneys.
Shortly before I heard the rumors about why Diane Sheppard left Indian Springs, I was talking with a friend about the school’s June letter on the sexual misconduct investigation. I had just seen the First Presbyterian letter naming Tim Thomas. It had reignited a conversation my women classmates and I have had numerous times since high school: Why did Springs have so many creeps on faculty, and how were they allowed to be that inappropriate, that openly, for that long? I knew of several of my male high school teachers who had committed sexual abuse, I told my friend, but “If any of the women teachers did it, my money is on Diane.”
Diane’s quiet, mid-year departure a couple years ago hadn’t made sense to me. She taught at Springs for nearly 30 years. She was popular and talented and had been interviewed a few times in the local paper about teaching John Green. When she left, her husband was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, and I had wondered if she left to care for him. But that didn’t explain the school’s silence around her leaving. Plus, I knew Diane. She was the best English teacher I ever had. She also groomed and emotionally abused me for about two years.
I was fortunate not to have been molested at Indian Springs, where—thanks to the work of survivors—a decades-long pattern of systemic teacher sexual misconduct is finally starting to come to light. But I did not escape the climate of predatory sexualization and emotional abuse that abusers and their enablers created.
It’s hard to pinpoint the first instance of grooming. Grooming starts small and proceeds incrementally. It is a series of increasingly inappropriate moves a perpetrator uses to identify vulnerable kids (who needs adult attention?), test the targeted kid (will they keep secrets?), gain the kid’s trust and affection, and prepare the kid for each subsequent step.
I suspect it began early in Diane’s eleventh grade English class. She famously liked to shock students with explicit sexual comments and observe our reactions. I suspect she noted my discomfort, perhaps my attraction to her. (Diane would not have been the only person who figured out I was queer before I did.) Or maybe it began with the dream journals she assigned—a private, intimate exercise that required us to record dreams that she, alone, would read. I do remember this from early in eleventh grade: sitting at a long table in the back of the library at my first poetry club meeting, workshopping a draft of a poem Diane had written.
“A dark knight moves across my skin…” the first line read. I don’t remember the rest of the poem, but I remember it was the most explicitly sexual piece of writing I had ever encountered. And I remember the way Diane watched me read it. I looked up to see her dark blue, dilated eyes burning into mine, an expression of amusement and arousal on her face. I felt her eyes on me as I looked back down at the paper and my face burned red. At that time, I had only seen that look from the grown men who catcalled me on the street. That started when I was eleven, wearing a training bra from the Limited Too. Diane started looking at me that way when I was sixteen, wearing unflattering knit shirts from Old Navy to hide my body. She was 52.
I would see that look of Diane’s many times over my junior and senior years at Indian Springs. That day at poetry club. Again, when she described the sexual prowess of the man she’d written the poem about. Again, when she read the oral sex scene from Looking for Alaska aloud in class. Again, in class, when she drew our attention to an error in an essay, smiled, and drawled, “What’s wrong this sentence? Why should he [the author] be spanked?” Again, when she told me her most recent ex-husband couldn’t handle her in bed because she liked to “bite and scratch” during sex. Again, when she told me and a friend that most men enjoy performing oral sex on women. Again, when she told me, from behind, that she loved the way I walked—that I walked “like Meg Ryan,” whose walk was “so attractive because she walks kind of like a boy.” Again, when she made me read a (now mortifying) sexual poem I had written, aloud, in class. Twice.
Diane mixed her sexually inappropriate comments with outsized praise for my personal and academic qualities. When she hosted the Women’s Club Sleepover at her house (yes, we slept at a teacher’s house at a school event), Diane told me, in front of another student, that I was so much like she was at my age, only I was a better writer, more mature, and better looking. It was embarrassing, but mostly it was flattering. This was a crucial piece of Diane’s grooming. Even in groups, Diane made me feel that I had a spotlight on me. That had started early in eleventh grade English. When Diane made significant or startling comments in class, she locked eyes with me, made feel that we were kindred spirits communicating on a deeper, more intimate level than the other students. My final grade report for junior English stands out as the most glowing praise an instructor has ever written about me, whether in high school, college, divinity school, or my current doctoral program:
"I have thoroughly enjoyed working with Kelly this year. Her writing is superior, her critical reading excellent, and her attitude commendable, and sometimes quirky! While Kelly is a wonderful English student, as she embodies all of the best traits needed to achieve academic excellence, she has an additional quality that makes her unique. She has a questioning mind, one that refuses to settle for simple, traditional answers and compels her to seek for a deeper meaning that transcends the surface or the ordinary. Kelly definitely sets high goals for herself and encourages others to do the same, which makes her the greatest asset a teacher can ask for in any course. She definitely needs to take AP Literature next year."
I was a good student. Lest you imagine I was some child prodigy, let me assure you that my other teachers’ comments were more down-to-earth. My French teacher noted that I wrote and spoke French well, but I would have had a higher final average had I turned in more of my assignments. My math teacher praised the hard work that brought my final average up to a low B. My U.S. history teacher remarked—in my favorite comment from that round of grade reports—that “Kelly still needs to focus more on answering the question asked and not the one she wants to answer.”
I am now 32 years old. If a boss or graduate professor privately shared graphic details of her sex life while offering superlative praise for my personal and intellectual attributes, I would hear alarm bells. I have a more realistic sense of my abilities and an adult understanding of appropriate boundaries. But when you are a closeted, queer Southern kid with a bad home life, untreated depression, and an ardent desire to become a writer, special attention from an attractive, brilliant, well-read older woman is a big deal.
Plus, I wanted to protect Diane. She told me excruciating details of her child abuse and domestic violence histories, her problem drinking, her reckless emotional driving. She once blamed me for “letting” her drive off campus drunk. By doing this, she made me, a teenager, want to take care of her—this woman in her fifties who graded my homework.
Diane did not protect me in return. I have reviewed my course materials from Diane’s seminar in Creative Writing. The syllabus framed creative writing as “a means of self-discovery as well as self-expression” that “requires absolute honesty from each writer and absolute trustworthiness and kind, thoughtful commentary from respondents.” It forbade any discussion of other students’ writing or of “any information that you learn about any individual as a result of this class” with anyone outside the course. The penalty was a non-negotiable failing grade and immediate removal from the class.
All of this created an atmosphere of secrecy and framed good creative writing as confessional writing. I took the bait. My writing from the class refers repeatedly and unambiguously to self-harm, suicide, depression, smoking, heavy drinking, and my emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend. It should have been clear to any half-conscious adult that I was reaching out for help during an especially difficult time in my life. Today, as a TA for adult master’s degree students, I would be meeting with a student who handed in this sort of material to check in and discuss referrals. Diane did nothing.
The story ends about as well as it could have. Diane abruptly turned hot and cold on me in the spring of my senior year. When I stopped by her office, she treated me like a nuisance. She told me that the other faculty thought I was a problem kid—and she alone defended me, to no avail. She reprimanded me for throwing an apple core into the bushes, telling me that I was littering and that she would have to write me a record. I thought she was joking. Diane was, shall we say, not strict. I had never heard of her writing anyone a record before. She was serious. She responded to my protestations—that a small, biodegradable apple core wasn’t litter—by pursing her lips and repeating herself. These examples are petty. The pettiness is the point, I think. After showering me with praise and sharing the intimate details of her sex life, drinking, and trauma history for nearly two years, Diane was letting me know who was in charge. She could punish me any time she wanted, for anything she wanted, however frivolous.
After I graduated, I emailed Diane a few times and ran into her at a few alum events. She acted like we barely knew each other. I imagine I wasn’t much use to her anymore. In retrospect, it’s clear to me that Diane cultivated intimacy with me to make me love her and take care of her, to make her feel desired. Apart from meeting those needs, I was disposable. It is clear to me, too, that I was lucky. Far better to have her dispose of me than get me into bed. When I think of what it would have done to me if my first experience of being with a woman had involved a bullying, middle-aged authority figure with a drinking problem, I know that I missed a big, Diane-shaped bullet, and through no action on my part. Had she ever propositioned me, Diane would easily have succeeded. She had made sure of that, step after step.
I feel guilty writing this. I know that worse things have happened to other Indian Springs students. Worse things have happened to me. I feel guilty writing this, too, because I was crazy about Diane. I suspect that was her goal. And when you fall for someone in high school, part of you keeps caring for them well into adulthood, however predatory and bullying you finally recognize them to be.
This is not a story about molestation. It is a story about what happens when a trusted adult pulls a troubled adolescent into a highly sexualized and intimate emotional relationship to meet needs that should be met by other adults. For just under two years, Diane praised my mind, encouraged my writing, tested my willingness to keep secrets by disclosing increasingly disturbing personal stories about sex and abuse, and made me feel like the mature adult I mistakenly believed myself to be. She was the most attractive and interesting woman I had ever met, and she made me feel like I was attractive and interesting, too, until she didn’t.
It took me years to recover from Diane. Before my senior year ended, Diane had already moved on to another girl.
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