By: Frankie Allegra
You find out your high school math tutor is a child molester the day before your mother’s 68th birthday, in late August, when California is coated in a thin layer of smoke from fires ravaging both coasts. You’re in law school so you know this is just a charge, there are presumptions of innocence, but you know that this isn’t a charge, this is a fact, and you have evidence. Your own.
When you started high school at Castilleja, you knew academic excellence mattered—to the institution, to your parents, to yourself. But there was one small problem: you were terrible at math. Equations made your head spin, and barring your badness, you also didn’t like it, the black and white nature of a correct answer. Life, you determined back then, was all about shades of grey. But there was a salve to your ineptitude that money and time could solve: Mark Hodes. Mr. Hodes—for he was a teacher, and this is the title you used for teachers—had helped your older sister get through AP Calc and was somewhat of a known quantity among the Bay Area private school circuit. He was an absolute math wizard. Your sister prepared you for him by saying he was a little autistic—not even in the off-the-cuff sense; although he never told you explicitly, his behaviors and demeanor indicated autism—and one other thing: He’s a little weird.
Weird how? He touches my leg a lot. Your leg? You’ll see. This is how one teenager prepared another before the era of MeToo, a lamb telling another lamb of something they’d seen recently, with vulpine ears and great big teeth, but couldn’t be sure what it was.
You would meet with Mr. Hodes at least twice a week, every week of high school, but sometimes more—if you had a test or a particularly hard to digest concept. Generally, your meetings were done in the basement of the main building where private study rooms lined a wall. You would sit in a study room together, with the door closed, and Mr. Hodes would sit closest to the door. You didn’t think much of this. He wouldn’t ask you how you were doing or how your week was, but would start every session with What can I do for you? You would bring him your homework, your in-class assignments, and he would pull out unlined white paper and start explaining the equations, and you would keep these papers after your sessions and stare at them, with the hopes you’d eventually digest them through osmosis.
As he would map out the math, his left hand would reach under the table and absently rest on your leg. At Castilleja, you wore a uniform: a white or navy polo and a baby blue pinafore skirt, so what this meant was your bare leg. The hand wouldn’t just sit though, it would roam. Up and down your thigh, back to your knee, to the plane between where your softest, whitest flesh lay, your inner leg. The first time it happened, you thought it was an accident. Then you remembered what your sister had said.
You could have stopped him. You could’ve. Please stop touching my leg, you could have said. What are you doing? you could have said. But he was a mister, and you were a girl, and you needed to learn math. Instead, you said nothing at all.
Week after week, you met with Mr. Hodes in those little study rooms, and his right hand would scribble down the math and his left hand would scribble up and down your leg. When things got especially dire—before an upcoming test or if you were floundering more than usual in pre-calc—you would go to Mr. Hodes’s house for extra sessions on the weekends, a dark and musty space that straddled the border of Los Altos and Palo Alto.
You don’t remember the exact street Mr. Hodes lived on, but you remember other things: how unbearably hot it always was in that house, year-round. At the time, you thought nothing of it; maybe he just ran cold. Later on though, much later on, you’d remember the heat, and how encouraging it must be to the girls who’d go there to wear less clothes in order to manage it. Even when summer came early to Northern California, and you’d swim in a swamp of sweat when you left, you always wore pants when you went to Mr. Hodes’s house. His hand would still be tracing planes on your leg, but the leg would be wrapped in fabric, safer. You remember seeing photos on the shelves of his office, photos of a girl who didn’t look much older than yourself, and how these photos would assuage the pit in your stomach: Mr. Hodes must be this girl’s father, and a man with a daughter wouldn’t hurt another man’s daughter. Right? Right.
You don’t blame your parents for sending you to Mr. Hodes. You don’t blame your school for allowing him to come to campus, week after week, to tutor girl after girl. You don’t even blame the pressure cooker of the Silicon Valley private school circuit, aspiring for excellence, foisting that aspiration onto legions of students, breathing down their necks, where girls, children, tolerate a quinquagenarian touching them in places they don’t want to be touched, all for the sake of a better grade in math. This is just the way things were. This is just the way things are.
The last correspondence you had with Mr. Hodes was in 2014, three years after you’d graduated from high school. You were a junior at Northwestern taking a mandatory Political Science Research Methods Class, and you asked him if he had any experience in R, a software programming language of statistical computing. He said he didn’t but he could probably figure it out, and you arranged a time to speak on the phone. You have no recollection of this phone conversation now, but buried in your university emails you find one from yourself from May 29, 2014, Hi Mr. Hodes, Just wanted to thank you so much for our session today! I already feel more secure about this class than I have all quarter. His reply: You’re welcome. It was a pleasure working with you again. You got an A- in the class.
You saw the email from Castilleja a few months ago, with the subject line, Important News from the Head of School. You skimmed it until you stumbled upon a name you knew, a man you knew: Mark Hodes, who runs a company called Peninsula Tutoring Services in Palo Alto, is charged with seven felony counts for molesting several teenage girls in his home. There was a contact phone number for the Palo Alto Police Department. Without thinking, without hesitating, you called it. Texts began trickling in from friends you hadn’t heard from in years, did you see this?, I’m so sorry, are you okay, Creepy Hodes strikes again. Creepy Hodes. That’s what you called him, week after week, equation after equation. That’s how you reconciled his behavior to your friends. They didn’t know any better. You didn’t know any better. But rue the day, August 27th, when the sergeant asked you if you consider yourself a victim. Four years, twice a week, of that dry, soft hand tracing tracks up your inner thigh as you looked at numbers and equations. You were 14 in a uniform skirt. You didn’t shave your legs above the knee. Don’t ask someone what she considers herself. Know what she is. Tell her you’re sorry.
On February 17th, sandwiched between coupons and a credit card advertisement from AmEx, you find a letter from the Santa Clara Pretrial Department, telling you that Mr. Hodes—Mark Hodes, Mark—has received supervised OR, or supervised own recognized release, a conditional freedom prior to his trial. You are told in this letter that Mark has been told not to harass, attack, strike, threaten, assault (sexually or otherwise), hit, follow, stalk, molest, destroy or damage personal or real property, or block the release of the protected persons named above. He is not to have personal, electronic, telephonic, or written contact with the protected persons named above. You are named above. If he violates these terms, there is a number you can call. Inexplicably, you are now a protected person. You smirk when you see the letter. It’s over a decade too late.
You are now a person whose livelihood you and you alone protect. You are no longer at the mercy of a math tutor, of feeling like you needed to swallow your own discomfort for the sake of a better grade, for a college acceptance, for your parents’ pride. Where was this letter years ago, telling you that what was going on wasn’t just weird, or creepy, but wrong? For whatever reason, a quote pops into your head the following day, and you do an internet search to see who it’s from, the French writer André Malraux: You did not return from hell with empty hands.
When you left Castilleja, you knew you never wanted to take a math class again. That mandatory statistics class your junior year was more than enough to cement that desire. You don’t know when or why, but you decided to become a lawyer. The meaning of this now is not lost on you. So much of your time in law school has been spent grimacing at the tired joke or some variation of it, We’re only here because we can’t do math. There’s truth to that. Now, the only math you do is calculating tips or doing your tax return. You spend your time reading textbooks and case law in perpetuity. You’ve learned that the life of law is language, and you’re sure there will be so much of that in Mr. Hodes’s eventual trial, a prosecutor’s story and a defense attorney, pages and pages of briefs filed. But you also know that the law is about so much more, peel back another layer and you can find it, the law’s beating heart, justice, in all its infinite shades of grey.
frankie allegra is a California native currently pursuing a law degree. Her essays have been published in Joyland, The Fanzine, The Briar Cliff Review, The Blue Mesa Review, Prompt Literary Magazine, and The Gyara Journal. Her one-act play “The Auction” was performed in Vivarium Theatre Company’s Lost and Found Festival in Chicago. She is a graduate of Northwestern University’s nonfiction program, where she studied under John Bresland and Eula Biss.