One of the most difficult aspects of my teaching job was hearing stories of horrible abuse being perpetrated on some of my students. So many were being used as sexual objects or whipping posts by the very people who should have been protecting them. In the earliest days of my career their situations almost derailed my intent to be a lifelong teacher. The things I learned were so egregious that I became an emotional wreck. I knew that my efforts to help them were shallow at best, Most of the time all I was able to do is alert the school counselor and the principal and hope that they would be able to alter the horrific trajectory of the students’ lives.
I still see their faces and their stories echo in my brain. They are the ones who broke my heart because I understood that their childhoods had already been severely damaged. I think of the girl whose mother shaved her head and damned her for bringing head lice into the family. I see the young boy shivering in a bathroom stall with a pair of scissors at this throat ready to end his life because his mother had once set him on fire. I recall watching the twelve year old girl grow great with a child implanted in her whom by an uncle. I remember the tears of a young boy whose mother left him in charge of the family each evening as she went out to earn a living with prostitution. I think of the eleven year old child whose family held him responsible for his sister’s rape because he had lost track of her when he was babysitting.
Such stories of children being used terribly by adults are not as uncommon as most of us want to believe. I know that learning of such things was an horrific eye opening experience for me. I grew up in a loving home and neighborhood. If such things were going on around me, I never heard of them save for the murder that took place on my street when I was nine years old. I suppose that my mother shielded me from such things and the bubble in which I lived was air tight. Nonetheless she was constantly warning me to be aware that such things do happen. I thought that her advice was hyperbolic because my own world seemed so perfect and safe.
Of course I learned as an adult that there had been an undercurrent of dark events even in my seemingly safe surroundings. My feeling that something was off with one of my teachers was ultimately revealed to be true when a story of his abuse of a student came to light. I found out that the daughter of one of my mother’s friends had aborted a baby with a knitting needle when she was fifteen. I realized that the whispers about a man’s death were a cloak for his suicide. I knew that my favorite uncle died from his cancer even though my elders thought they had kept that sad truth from troubling me. I realized that even in the seemingly most perfect setting horror can find its way inside.
I count myself quite fortunate for growing up in a loving and happy environment. I appreciate my mother’s efforts to protect me from harm and the harsh realities of the world, but I also know that I reached a point at which it became important for me to know of the atrocities of life so that I might be able to spot potentially harmful situations. I learned about such things mostly from reading books. I found out about the dark side of humanity in beautifully scripted paragraphs that horrified me and enlightened me. I saw that there have always been people in the world who use other in despicable ways.
While it was disheartening and even a bit traumatic to read such things. They also taught me why my mother was so careful. It prompted me to be more aware of people and surroundings just as my mom had always counseled me. The stories of characters in dire situations helped me to put a face on abuse and injustice that I might not otherwise have had because I had been so sheltered. While such discoveries were shocking, they did not create confusion in my mind. On the contrary, the truth behind them helped me to be a better more understanding person.
Our duty as parents, educators, adults is to protect our children from harm. It is a noble and important purpose, but in the process we don’t want to keep our kids so innocent that they will not know what to do or how to react when they face dangers or corrupt behaviors. If they do not understand that such ways of behaving actually exist they may believe that something is wrong with them, not the perpetrator, if they encounter abuse. Exposing them gently but honestly to truth over the span of their childhoods is important. Talking with them about the things that they fear in an open manner is the best way of dealing with the traumas that they encounter or imagine. If we don’t broach such topics in the home, certainly the child will encounter them from their friends. It’s best that we do not leave it to children to teach each other.
There is much concern these days about the books that children read and the lessons that they learn from teachers. While I have seen rogue educators who do and say inappropriate things, such individuals are few and far between. Most people in schools are dedicated to improving the lives of their students, not endangering them. Books can be powerful tools in this endeavor. While sometimes they reveal harsh truths about the world, they also create teachable moments that strengthen the resiliency and goodness of the students. They also induce critical thinking which is perhaps the most important skill that any child will need to survive in the world as it is.
Charlotte’s Web is a difficult read. Children invariably cry when they hear its story, but we should not be quick to whisk it away because it creates difficult emotions. Death is something what happens, even for little eight year old girls. Knowing about it and taking about it softens the shock of the blow if and when it occurs. I does not make the pain go away, but it helps to know that it is part of a shared human experience and that there are ways to keep moving forward.
To me this is what good literature and history is about. It reveals the cracks in our society, but it also demonstrates that somehow we humans pick up the pieces of personal and collective disasters over and over again. It teaches us to be wary of any situation or person who makes us feel uncomfortable. It builds more trust to know the truth than to be the victim of lies about reality.
I am a fortunate soul. I have been essentially untouched by evil thus far, but I have seen its effect on others. I know that it is out there and I am always aware of the pitfalls of being naive. My knowledge makes me strong, not fearful. I do environmental scans watching for signs of trouble. I am in touch with the heart beat of the world around me. I have learned this from my mother, books and teachers willing to share the truth with me.