During my 15 years of teaching, both in and out of the classroom, I have witnessed many mind-destroying situations that left me with feelings of inadequacy, for I knew I was unprepared to deal with such traumas. Although many years have passed, two of those situations still haunt me. And many similar cases still exist today.
In a well-known high school sitting atop a hill with a scenic view of Washington, a 17-year-old girl entered my English class. She was petite with beautiful brown eyes and skin, and high prominent cheeks. She wore her hair in a fluffy, well-cared-for bushy style that framed a face whose countenance bore the wisdom of the streets. I could tell that she trusted no one, for each question I asked her was answered with skepticism. I explained to her that I needed certain data for my records and she grudgingly supplied information that I later learned was untrue.
This young girl was never absent from class--she would often arrive early since the class was after the lunch period. Frequently, I held a one-way conversation with her about mundane pleasantries. After approximately eight weeks of coming to class daily, she missed a class, and I naturally became concerned.
That night, I called the number she had given for her parents and found that it was the number of a halfway house in Northwest. The housekeeper on duty informed me that she hadn't seen or heard from the child, who had run away from the home, in several months. I told her of the girl's diligence in coming to my class and asked what was being done to find her. She said that nothing was being done since the girl was nearly 18 and had left of her own accord. I was appalled and silently questioned, "Do we neglect our duties toward teen-agers just because they're nearly 18?"
She missed class for a week, and when she returned, I noticed faint bruises on her face and arms. I asked if she had been ill, and she curtly replied no. I felt a powerful urge to hug this unapproachable child, who was so obviously hurting inside. I didn't hug--I simply said, "Sugar, I want to help."
She looked nonplussed and stared at me for a full minute before a large tear rolled silently down each cheek. Then she said, "Nobody can help me." She said it with such rejection, such finality that I hadn't the right words to console her or make the world brighter to her. I felt frustrated and inadequate: unshed tears swam in my eyes while my heart bled for her.
The next day the girl shyly entered my classroom at the beginning of the lunch period. She had a brown paper bag of "junk food" with her and asked if she could eat lunch in my room. Although I usually prefer to have lunch alone, I acquiesced, for I knew that revelations were forthcoming. She began by telling me that she ran away from home when she was 13 because she had been sexually assaulted by her mother's new husband. On learning of the incident, she said, her mother had blamed her, taking the new husband's part and saying, "You must have tricked him into it."
Stunned and horrified, I sat there, wondering how a mother could be so unmotherly. The child continued her tale of running away, then being taken into custody (her mother did not want her back, telling the police that she was bad and uncontrollable). I was astounded. This child had been victimized, yet she was made to seem the perpetrator. She did not tell the police what her stepfather had done to her. I asked why and she replied, "If my own mother didn't believe me, I knew the cops wouldn't neither."
I asked how she came to be in a halfway house rather than a foster home. I had thought that halfway homes were for reforming drug addicts. She informed me that there were many such homes in the District where kids whose parents didn't want them or couldn't handle them lived. She continued, telling me matter-of-factly how she ran away repeatedly, living in the streets during warm weather, sleeping around when the weather turned cold, stealing when she was hungry, and being picked up repeatedly by the authorities and returned to a halfway house.
Her story was incredible. I didn't know what to say. It shattered my safe, middle-class consciousness. As an avid reader, I knew that such situations occurred, but never did I once think that they occurred in my world--that they would ever touch me.
"Didn't anyone counsel you or try to help you? Did they just take you back to the halfway house and drop you off?" I asked her, desperately. "Didn't anybody do anything?"
I turned aside slightly. I didn't want to hear the answer. She leveled a patronizing gaze at me: "Nobody really cares," she repeated. "Nobody gives a damn about me or any of the other girls at the house. All they want to do is get their check."
"I care," I said, my emotions spilling into my eyes. At that moment, I felt that she trusted me. I told her I had called the number she had given to me and that the housekeeper said she hadn't seen her in months. I asked her where she lived now.
"I live with my boyfriend," she offered.
"Your boyfriend!" I blurted incredulously. "You're only 17."
"I'll be 18 next month, and anyway, he gives me money and buys me clothes," she said.
"How old is he?" I asked.
"Oh, he's 39," she said.
"Why are you with someone old enough to be your father?" I queried.
" 'Cause I know where he's coming from, and he takes care of me," she shot back.
She told me that he was good to her most of the time and that he beat her when he was drunk but never when he was just "high." I asked her the difference between drunk and "high." She thought I was joking, but answered that when a person is "high," he has been using drugs. I asked about the kind of drugs, and she said, "We smoke a joint or snort coke."
"We!" I exclaimed. "You mean you do it, too?"
"Sure, ain't nothing wrong with it," she defended.
Suddenly, the bell rang, ending the lunch period. My mind was heavy with incredulousness and indecision. What should I do? What can I do? I pondered these questions the rest of the day and on through the night. The next morning I went to a respected school counselor. But she was not able to assuage my feelings nor could she tell me what should or could be done.
She said there were many youngsters with similar problems and worse that had no viable solutions. I asked her about child protective services. Again I was told that since the girl was nearly 18, they wouldn't be able to help. She cautioned me not to get too involved in the problems of youngsters, for it would place me in a "no-win" predicament.
Well, I became the girl's confidante, and she piled horror upon horror, telling me not only about her life, but also about the lives of other girls from the home. Near the end of the school year, she told me that she was pregnant. The man with whom she lived did not want the baby, she said, and he insisted that she get an abortion or he would beat the baby out of her. She said he thought she had gotten pregnant on purpose to force him into marriage. I asked what she intended to do and she said, "Get rid of it."
I talked with her many times about her plans after graduation, trying to instill the idea of joining the armed services, telling her that she could continue her education, improve her environment, travel the world, and become independent. She was warming to the idea, and by graduation she told me that she had taken the test for the Army and passed.
I have not heard from her since, but I often wonder where she is and what she is doing.
The second situation that haunts me still is not quite as detailed as the first because I only heard this young boy's story over a few days. I was afraid to be too inquisitive because of the circumstances.
Several years ago, I was teaching at a small junior high school in Southwest, not far from the wharf. A 15-year-old boy befriended me; however, he was not one of my students. He was tall and handsome with cream-colored skin and light hazel eyes. There was a faint hint of hair growing on his upper lip, which he stroked frequently--I suppose he thought this would make his moustache grow faster.
I had seen him around school and wondered about him, for he was always very well dressed in expensive black suits invariably with a black shirt and white tie. He carried an expensive black attache case at all times. But the most intriguing thing about him was a scar across his throat from one ear to the other. I attributed this to serious operation he must have had.
I have no idea why he chose to stop in my room one lunch period or to tell me things about himself. He talked about things of little importance at first. I listened. After about four such meetings, I got the courage to ask about the scar. I say "courage" because I was apprehensive about this boy in black.
He said that he had been gambling with some other boys about four years ago and tried to filch a dime from the pile. One of the boys pulled knife and cut his throat. The shock of hearing this sent me reeling backwards. But when he told me who his assailant was, I became immobilized. I had taught that kid the year before and thought him to be a very "nice" boy with no inherent streak of violence.
If this happened four years ago, I thought to myself, that means the kids were around 11 years old.
Another day this boy came into my room swinging his ever-present black briefcase. He asked me if I knew what was in it and I said no. I really didn't want to know, either, since I had heard rumors of his activity.
"I deal drugs," he said, waiting for me to reply. But I said nothing. I was afraid of this boy who reminded me of a miniature Al Capone. He said, "I got my piece with me, too. I carry it everywhere I go, too."
"You have a gun in there," I said, indicating the attache case.
"Yeah," he replied, "You wanna see it?" Whereupon he started to unlatch the briefcase.
"Oh, no, no! Please don't show it to me. I don't want to see it. Really, please!" I was terrified of guns and I knew that if he had forced me to see it, I would have lost control and started screaming.
"You know you shouldn't have a gun in school, don't you?" I asked nervously.
"Well, I keep a lot of money on me and I got to protect my drugs," he explained. "I go all the way to New York--that's where my old man lives--I go to New York to pick up my drugs."
"Do you live with your mother? Who takes care of you?" I asked.
"I take care of myself," he retorted angrily. "I don't need nobody to take care of me. I buy my own clothes and even give my grandmother money. I live with my grandmother, but she don't take care of me."
He had gotten excited; his face was an angry red, and I was frightened. I just wanted him to leave. I felt totally unprepared to deal with a hostile boy who bragged about carrying a gun and selling dope. I changed the subject and talked of my next class assignment. I didn't know what to do. I realize how inept this makes me appear, but I wonder how many young teachers would have known exactly what to do.
After school, I talked with the principal about the boy. He said the administration was aware of his drug activity but hadn't been able to catch him with the drugs. He hadn't known about the gun but didn't seem shocked or surprised. He told me not to worry, that everything would be all right.
How can one not worry about a gun? I was petrified. I cannot recall now how much time elapsed--a day, two days--but soon two police officers escorted the boy out of the school in handcuffs. I don't know what happened to him. He never came back while while I was here. The campus buzzed with the arrest, but the next day brought business as usual.
That boy was a "street kid," nurtured on violence and "cool." I still wonder why he told me those things about himself. I have had many youngsters confide horrible things to me, yet I've never really known how to handle the problems. I feel totally incompetent in dealing with situations that psychologists train for years to handle.
Mostly, I just listen and offer bland platitudes that don't help. When they cry, I cry with them. But what can tears avail a kid who has the world pressing down on his inexperienced shoulders and who must struggle to survive?
I think teachers should be trained to handle crisis situations. The few psychology courses teachers take do not begin to prepare us for effectively dealing with youngsters' problems. We are told to teach the "total child," but how can we when we don't even know the "total child." A child enters the room--we see a face and body--no home life, no traumas, no dark secrets. Even if we did have time to peruse their records, we still may not get an accurate or complete scenario of the child's life.
Many of the teachers who have been violently attacked by a student or students were not cognizant of the best way to control the situation. If we were given in-service training in handling crises, we would be much better prepared to give aid to young people who are either out of control or out of sync with their peers and often with themselves.