She came to school wearing a lady’s wig. At first I thought it was a silly prank that she was pulling because the brunette bouffant swallowed her tiny face. Still she looked beautiful with her blue eyes staring from beneath the fringe of bangs that were so long that they touched her eyelids. When the students in my class began to taunt her tears welled up like raindrops on an azure lake. That’s when I knew that something was terribly wrong.
I took her gently aside and asked why she was sporting the strange headpiece. She whispered that she had to do so because her own hair was gone. We found a private area and she lifted the wig to show me her shorn head. It had been shaved all the way down to the scalp. She explained that her mother had found nits in her hair and became enraged that she had brought such foul creatures into the house. Before the girl knew what was happening her mom ordered her into the backyard and soon met her with an electric razor, ranting her disgust all the while that she removed every last shred of hair from the child’s scalp.
When the girl cried and asked her mom how she would be able to face her classmates she was told that she had brought the embarrassment upon herself. Eventually the mother calmed her irritation just a bit and brought out the wig, insisting that the girl cover her shame with the ridiculous head piece. The little child sobbed as she told me her story. She mentioned over and over again how much she loved her parent and that she didn’t want to cause anymore trouble. She just wanted to go back to the classroom and face the music from her peers. She maintained that she would be just fine and that her hair would soon enough grow again.
I was her teacher and had to report the incident to the principal and the school nurse. We learned that this was not the first time that the mother had targeted the sweet child with abusive behavior. For some reason she was the unloved one among her siblings. In spite of her sweet nature and her attempts to please, she was often harangued with guilt trips that outlined her faults. She was compared unfavorably to her sisters and made to believe that she was somehow unworthy of praise and love.
I cried about this child. I lost sleep worrying about her. There was little more that I was able to do than to emphasize to her just how truly wonderful she actually was. I was careful to show her the kindness that seemed to be lacking in her home. Unfortunately she was one of many children in my class that year who were living in abusive situations. Even the nurse’s report to CPS did little to change her circumstances. The social workers were overworked and bound by rules and regulations that prevented them from making truly setting things right.
I’ve found myself thinking about this little girl for decades. She would have been about ten years old back then which means that she is now a woman in her forties. I hope that things turned out well for her, but I fear what might have happened. She was beautiful and brilliant and as sweet as can be, but for whatever reason her mother found her lacking. She acted as though she took the abuse in stride, but in truth she was always a bit anxious as though she was always waiting for the next insult to land. She was apologetic just for being who she was.
I worry that she went from the frying pan into the fire. Perhaps she landed in an abusive situation with a man. Nonetheless I prayed that in some wondrous miracle she finally realized her own worth and managed to heal herself. I’d like to believe that she eventually became strong enough to understand that she had never been the problem. Many people have overcome such backgrounds, and she certainly had all of the natural talents to do so. Still, I know all too well how constant denigration can erode self esteem to the point of creating permanent scars.
In my career I witnessed such sadness far more than I might have wished. I always wondered what makes a parent despise a child. In all probability the mother had been somehow abused herself. Maybe she suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness. Perhaps she was simply overwhelmed by circumstances. Maybe she was just mean.
We never know exactly what to do in such cases. Children seem to love their parents even when the parents are unnaturally cruel. They prefer taking the verbal or physical beatings rather than being separated because their reality is so devoid of love. Knowing that such things are all too often commonplace was the the most difficult aspect of my time as a teacher. I grew to love each of my students and felt protective of them. When they were still overwhelmed by poverty, ignorance, or abuse I found myself wishing that I had some wonderful power to change things for them.
I have several unimaginably compassionate friends like Chrystal and Fran who serve as foster parents. I have watched them shower children with kindness and love. They have gone out of their way to welcome little lost souls into their families. They provide a refuge and a place of hope. I admire them so, because I know how difficult their roles may sometimes be. They are true angels who sacrifice physically and emotionally to help someone else’s child, even knowing that just when they become attached the little one may be returned to a questionable situation. Theirs is a goodness that I applaud, for instead of only hoping and praying they are actually doing something to ease the pain of such kids.
There are many children who are confused and battered and unloved. Perhaps if more of us were like my friends we might save them from the horrors that blight their childhood and no doubt influence their lives as adults. Whenever the image of the beautiful little girl with the absurd wig comes into my mind, I wish I had done more and I pray that she is finally happy. Most of all I hope she understood that I believed that she was wonderful.