One beautiful night last fall, I found myself walking home to Village A from the Leavey Center at around 2 a.m. I was alone in the darkness, and for the first time in my life, I felt safe in that situation. I was feeling mighty pleased with myself for being able to enjoy the night, when my thoughts drifted to where I would run if I were attacked. Do the blue light phones really work? Would it be better to just try to make it to Copley? Before I knew it, I was looking down at the shadows, so I could check if I was being followed without looking behind me. My feeling of safety lasted all of 30 seconds, but all the same, it was a milestone.
I hadn’t felt safe at night since the eighth grade, when I was taught to be afraid of the dark. The class was technically called Self-defense, but it focused much more on fear than survival skills. Our co-ed gym class was divided for the month or so it took to teach us girls to cross the street, walk with our keys in hand, and not talk on the phone. Not to mention the Miss Congeniality-esque defense maneuvers that I would never, ever use. It became clear that the point of the class was to learn how to avoid dangerous situations, not to learn what to do if such a situation actually occured. It’s a valid point, and many of the pointers were useful for teenage girls growing up in a big city like Chicago. By the end of the unit, though, we were all convinced that we would get mugged if we took the El after dark, and God help us if we didn’t have a twenty in our wallets for the mugger.
I followed most of the guidelines all the way through high school. It wasn’t that I felt unsafe in my city; I just thought that it was reckless to walk alone at night. I never took the El home from school later than rush hour (though it was often dark by 6:30, the crowds made it safe), and when I drove home late on weekends, I carried my house keys as a weapon for the half block to my front door. It was only reasonable, I thought, to be hyper-alert for the intervening minute between the safety of the car and the safety of the house.
I couldn’t see a reason to change my policy on darkness when I came to school. After all, D.C. is a city, and we kept getting emails about muggings by the library parking lot. (I actually had very little sympathy for those victims, to be honest. They were walking alone at night on a poorly-lit block known to be unsafe. How had they forgotten the lessons of eighth grade self-defense?) When my friend had a closing shift at Vittles and finished work at 1 a.m. every Sunday, we took turns walking in pairs to pick her up all semester. It was inconceivable that we would allow her to walk home to New South alone: she would obviously die. Why would campus be any safer than the rest of the city? It’s not as if the gates actually keep anyone out.
I learned that not everyone had been taught my fear of the dark the night one of my friends drunkenly walked to GW around midnight on a Saturday. As I told her the next morning how monumentally stupid that was, I was stunned to realize that she really hadn’t known how dangerous it was to walk alone across the city at night and that she still didn’t really believe me.
Here’s the thing about my fear of the dark: I wasn’t frozen with panic or limited in my choices. I felt secure in my knowledge of how to take care of myself. I was proud of knowing how to see the creepy guy behind me and cross the street while making it look like that had nothing to do with him. I interpreted the fear I was taught as awareness, which made me feel safer.
So I suppose it was only a matter of time until I learned to have the awareness without the worry. The first time that I really was fearless at night, I wasn’t at home. I wasn’t at school. I wasn’t even in America. I walked the five blocks from our neighborhood bar to my apartment in Vienna around midnight, and I didn’t die. More importantly, I didn’t think that I would.