There’s Never a First Offense When You’re a Nice White Boy

Nicole Hallberg
9 min readSep 4, 2019


Content warnings: mentions of assault, abuse.

Institutional memory is short, and benefit of the doubt for nice boys is impenetrable.

I looked up from my bowl of cereal, and noticed that all of the acrylic squirrel figurines decorating my dorm room shelf were gone.

On inspection, there were little gaps in the dust where each figurine had clearly been until quite recently, with little scuffs and drag marks leading from each one. Signs of a scuffle. I called over my boyfriend, sitting on my bed in his underwear with his own bowl of cereal. “Hey, do you see this? All my squirrels are missing.” If Dick Wolf had written this scene, this is when the dum-DUM chimes would play, and a hard cut would show Detective Lennie Briscoe being briefed on my forensic findings by Lt. Van Buren.

I had been collecting squirrels for about five years. Squirrels were my favorite animal, so I was gifted a lot of figurines. I had something like 20 of them, all arranged on this little shelf. I was a very homesick and lonely college Freshman who was possibly trying to do whatever the opposite of leaving home to find myself was, so I had brought them with me, and still called my mom to talk every night before bed.

I initially assumed that this was the latest in a long run of squirrel-related pranks. I had a “Squirrel Crossing” sign that I’d taped to my steel dorm door, next to my standard issue college-branded dry erase board. The kids on my floor liked to use the marker to doodle my squirrel in various states of sexual congress with other squirrels, each more tumescent than the last. They kept upping the ante with bigger dicks, more dicks, dicks inside of dicks inside of my squirrel whose dick was inside another squirrel, and one dedicated student had taken the time to cover every single inch of it in tiny squirrel dicks in a non-dry erase marker that I needed rubbing alcohol to remove. So, this just seemed like the logical extension of that. I was surely about to receive a pornographic tableau of my squirrels having a gang-bang on my Facebook wall, with a list of demands for their safe return. This was back when you still needed a college email address to get a Facebook account, and you could post anything without your grandma and boss seeing it, and no one was monetizing it yet. It was still fun.

This sign is still in my basement, and it still has the note I left on it. I was lots of fun at parties.

No one would tell me what had happened but everyone seemed to know, so I asked my RA if she could just discreetly ask whoever had them to leave them outside my door, there were some sentimental ones that I wanted back. I was surprised how concerned she was. I was focused on the arboreal rodent theft — she was worried that someone had been in my room without my knowing.

She told me I should go and make a report with campus police, to establish a paper trail of prior incidents if anything else happened. I wasn’t sure what else could happen, as I was out of squirrels, but I did. I’ve felt silly many times in my life, but never quite as silly as I did describing this inventory of stolen property to a uniformed police officer. “Acrylic squirrel, two inches tall, standing on a pine cone. Acrylic squirrel, six inches tall, holding two smaller baby squirrels. Carved stone squirrel, half inch tall, gift from my baby sister on her museum field trip.” There is likely still a record of this happening with campus police. There was a brief write up in the school paper with the weekly Cop Shop roster. This incident is on microfiche somewhere.

I got a call about a week after I made the report from the campus officer who looked into it, who asked to meet me outside the building to discuss it. It turned out that it wasn’t a dick doodler who had smuggled the squirrels while I had my back turned. It wasn’t a prank done by someone I knew, but by the kid who lived across the hall. According to the others on the floor, he’d gotten drunk and come in in the middle of the night while I was sleeping. He’d stuffed them all down the trash chute in a panic when he sobered up the next morning.

I got a real chill when I heard this. I had never exchanged a single word with the kid who lived across the hall — or I should say, exactly one word. I had said good morning once while we rode the elevator down alone together, but he just looked at me and said nothing. I had never tried to speak to him again. He was a swimmer, a gorgeous blonde with an athlete’s body, and he had a reputation for getting wild when he was drunk. Like, destruction of property wild, rather than fun wild.

His name was Rob. This is his real name, because I am too exhausted this week to go out of my way to protect the anonymity of those who behave badly. Screw you, Rob.

I hadn’t been locking my door at night. I had grown up in a very rural place, where we didn’t always lock the doors. It wasn’t part of my routine. I would get home, wipe the dicks off my squirrel sign, and open my laptop. I wasn’t thinking about safety or worst case scenarios all the time, not then. And my old key would get stuck and I’d have to jiggle it, and there was a $200 replacement fee for breaking a key off in the lock. So I routinely forgot.

As I’m still reeling with trying to figure out why Rob would come into my room at night, the cop asked me whether or not I wanted to press charges and make an official complaint.

He said, and I quote, “Listen, if you press charges, you could really screw up this kid’s life. It would be on his record forever, you don’t want to mess around with this stuff. Here’s what I can do instead. He’s on the swim team, I can talk to his coach. He’ll talk to him and put the fear of God into him. Okay? Does that sound good?”

I was eighteen. I was dumb. It felt pretty clear what I was supposed to choose. The cop thought a talking-to would keep me safe, so I felt like I had to agree. He would know, right? As a 30 year old now, I think differently: he must have known that Rob could be a threat, but he did the math and the threat to Rob’s career was worse than the threat to a dumb girl who couldn’t remember to lock her door at night. In the possible outcome of scenarios, a mark on a bright young athlete’s record must have seemed the greater tragedy. Or maybe he was just remembering all the times he got a talking to from Coach instead of a rap sheet for all those harmless breaking-into-a-woman’s-room-at-night-while-she-sleeps pranks, and paying it forward.

I locked my door after that. I replayed the night a lot, puzzling and puzzling out the details. My lights were off, my door was closed. I was asleep. He was drunk. He came in. Did he somehow know my door wouldn’t be locked? Or did he discover it when he tried the handle? Why would he try the handle? Did he really come in just to steal some knickknacks? Why? He couldn’t have known they were there beforehand, he’d never been in my room and you couldn’t see the shelf from the door. The cop must have considered all of this, right?

I soon realized something that scared me. When I noticed the squirrels were missing that morning, I remarked on it to my boyfriend, in his underwear, sitting on my bed. My boyfriend from home had been visiting and sleeping there in bed with me that night. What had Rob come in to my room that night to do? And was he surprised to find me not alone?

Maybe it was just a bizarre prank from a bizarre person. Maybe it wasn’t. I’ll never know.

I gave him more space, ensured we were never on the elevator together. He kept his own door propped open, meaning he could see me from his desk every time I left my room and every time I came back. I never made eye contact and prayed he wasn’t keeping track.

A few months later, all the elevators in the ten-floor freshman dorm tower went out of commission for a week. Turns out, Rob had gone on one of his famous benders and destroyed them. He ripped the panels out of the ceiling, stuffed them down the elevator shaft, and smashed every light bulb and button. He was caught because he wrote “Hope you all enjoyed operation blackout” on his door’s white board. I heard his parents were on the hook for whatever the repairs cost, but he wasn’t kicked out, or even formally disciplined as far as I knew. And why would they? He had no other disciplinary actions on his record.

I wish I could say he was the only man I knew who skated by on second chances that no one ever seemed to realize were actually third and fourth chances. I knew a girl who was touched inappropriately by staff at a college event. He was never written up, because he had no other write ups, so he wasn’t deemed a threat. I wondered how many times that had already happened.

Institutional memory is short, and “think about his future” armor is thick. Every time a Congrats on Your Retirement sheet cake is served or a transfer goes through, the organization forgets where a few more of the bodies are buried. They forget who should be kept an eye on. Those professors and administrators and cops and priests who are asked to quietly resign, they can Fail Up as many times as they need to before the institutional memory runs dry and no one knows of any reason why they shouldn’t be put in charge of the volleyball team. As I’ve seen first hand, those Nice White Boy second chances they hand out can be cashed in indefinitely. And every time they fuck up, someone will wring their hands and say Who Could Have Ever Predicted This?

I once knew a kid who was busted by the cops with drugs. Nothing went on his record, because he had no priors. When he was pulled over with more drugs a few years later, they let him go with a warning, because he had no priors. When his partner sought a protection order against him a few years after that, they couldn’t find a legal justification for giving them one — because he had no priors. I am happy to report that today, twelve years later, he finally has some charges on his record. He pulled a weapon on someone in a road rage incident, and was taken into custody after assaulting a police dog. I try not to think too hard about the fact that he’s serving time for violence to the dog, but not his partner. Legally, that never happened. Legally, they never could have predicted this.

I know about all of this years after I cut off contact because I check in on him often with those who know him and know what he did. It’s how we all protect each other, part of the informal network that keeps women safe when institutions won’t give out anything but second chances and smoke screens. We memorize and pass on names and faces to each other, we try to keep our own group memories as lengthy as possible. We keep our own lists of who’s safe and who’s not, and we whisper them down the line. I lost count of how many abusers’ secrets I’m keeping. Even now, I haven’t named anyone I’ve mentioned thus far (except for you, Rob. Fuck you.)

There’s no other choice — we can’t go through the Proper Channels. Every one of us remembers being failed by the Proper Channels once. We can all picture the cop and the swim coach exchanging nods, closing ranks to protect some bright-eyed little shit stain. Victim impact is not a part of the equation, future safety is not an official concern. A boy not living up to his mythical “potential” is always the bigger tragedy. As a society, there’s nothing we won’t do to protect a boy from the consequences of his own actions — no defense is too absurd, no rationalization is too flimsy, no benefit of the doubt too far-fetched.

Sometimes, I wish that I and my friends had been born as some white boy’s reputation, because then someone might have actually given a shit about protecting us.



Nicole Hallberg

Philly freelance blogger. Follow @nickyknacks for the personal stuff and for my work stuff.