A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Thursday, March 08, 2007

2007 Blog Against Sexism Day

She kept coming to school with bruises, a black eye, scratches on her arms. She was sixteen years old-- and she was being beaten by her boyfriend. Her seventeen year old boyfriend.

They were both students of mine at one time or another. I had known him first-- he was a little bitty guy, a good breeze would have blown him over. In fact, at one point, the counselor had asked me to keep an eye on him for an eating disorder. His clothes were your typical dark, baggy, studded affair-- sk8r boy stuff. He liked to wisecrack, didn't like to do classwork, and was often late after making moon eyes in the hallway at this girl whom I didn't know. He was basically harmless. I would see her in the hallway and say, "Hello, reason-why-Sk8ter-Boi-is-always-late!" and she would grin and wave.

LSS, he got his F and moved on. Then, the next year, she was my student. She was very intelligent, but wasn't in any honors classes, which I found odd, but when I asked her about it, she just shrugged and said she didn't have time. At the beginning and end of class, there was Sk8r Boi. I kept wondering how he could get there so quickly, so he could escort her to class and from class. I later discovered that he did it often by skipping his class that hour, so his principal asked me to detain him one day. After he served his time in on-site suspension, I noticed that she would just hang around and chat until he got there. Then, about mid-October, he suddenly disappeared, and she told me he had dropped out.

I didn't really notice anything seriously odd until a couple of weeks later, when she came to school with a serious black eye. Luckily, I had a student teacher, so I asked him to take over the class. The second she stepped into class, I steered her right back out into the hallway, sat her down in a desk that I keep there, folded my arms, and waited. She looked everywhere but at me, and then finally, in a rush, it all came out. If she didn't do everything just as he said, he'd pull her hair, punch her repeatedly in the arm, pinch and twist her tricep. It had started out playfully, of course, and she didn't think too much about it, but soon the pokes got painful, the hair pulling actually caused dozens of strands of hair to come out. The night before, they had been in her car, although he was driving, and got into an argument. He had pulled her seatbelt tight and pummeled her head up against the window over and over again. He may have been a little runt that most adults could have broken in half, but he knew where to hit to inflict the most damage. She halfheartedly asked me not to tell anyone. It was a pro forma request, because I am not known for just sitting around and letting stuff like this happen, and she knew it.

So down we went to see the police officer stationed on campus, and got her counselor and her principal involved, as well. She had turned her cell phone off, and the cop told her to turn it on. There were eleven messages from him in voicemail, and he called while she was still in the cop's office, although she didn't answer. The messages were pleading with her to call him and saying how much he loved her, at first. The last messages proclaimed that she was an ugly, ignorant bitch and she'd better call or else, because she was NOT going to ignore him.

Her parents were called in-- of course they had had no idea. She had always been a clumsy child, so the little scuffs and bruises they had seen until then hadn't drawn attention, and they hadn't seen her go to school that morning. They were stunned, to say the least. They were urged to press charges, and agreed. The police left school and went to his house to talk to him, but he wasn't there, and his parents claimed he didn't live there any more. He was seen in her neighborhood later that night and arrested. His parents immediately bailed him out.

I'd like to say that was the end, but she forgave him, and began dating him again as the weeks went by. She kept talking to me, though, and I kept trying to make her see that she could never change him, that she wan't responsible for him, that he would never stop hurting her whil he thought he could get away with it-- and I made sure she understood that I knew what I was talking about, as my parents had had an abusive marriage. "You can only control yourself," I told her. "You can't make other people treat you right, or really love you. But you can control whether you allow yourself to be in a situation where you could be hurt-- or even killed."

Finally, he broke her cheeckbone and a couple of her ribs. This time he left town, and no one could find him. But no matter what, since he wasn't there, she was safer. He still tried to call her, and left messages saying he was in Boise, or Denver, or Seattle. I didn't care, as long as he wasn't here.

She is now trying to rebuild her life. She's struggled a bit in school, nothing serious, but has eventually gotten her feet back under her, and last semester she posted her best GPA ever. She wants to go to college at a small school in New York state where she has an aunt.

As I became more aware of this problem, I realized this is far from an isolated incident. Girls at the beginning of their dating years are most likely to be victims of this kind of abuse. I am now much more aware of suspicious absences and cuts and bruises.

It would be nice to think that teens could be innocent of this kind of abuse in their own fledgling romantic lives. But even by the age of fifteen or sixteen, some young men (and young women) have learned how to use words and physical force to try to exert complete control over another human being. We, the adults in their schools, who often see them the most in their lives, have to wake up to this potential problem.

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At 3/8/07, 7:12 PM, Anonymous Kim said...

As sad and unfortunate as your student's situation was, bravo to you for taking a stand for her, and bravo to her, too, for turning things around for herself

At 3/8/07, 8:16 PM, Blogger Drussell said...

Very sad, but I suspect it happens much ltoo often, story. What a wonderful teacher you are to be more than just an information giver. I, too, am a survivor of domestic abuse and the scars still linger. This young lady will be in my prayers. God bless you for helping her and yes, probably saving her life.


At 3/8/07, 9:24 PM, Blogger CaliforniaTeacherGuy said...

Thank you for the somber wake-up call.

At 3/8/07, 9:43 PM, Blogger Mrs. T said...

As a mother of 2 daughters, this made me weep. I also remember vividly my own adolescence and the desperate longing to be loved by a boy. I hope this girl is on her way to a better situation. I fear that she is just one of many.

At 3/9/07, 10:21 AM, Blogger susan said...

Thanks for posting on this topic. Having taught in a domestic violence shelter for children and thier moms, this topic is very close to my heart. Few people recognize how many kids and teens are abused every day.

At 3/9/07, 3:28 PM, Anonymous mrschili said...

It's all learned behavior - I don't believe that most of us (I realize there are exceptions) are born abusers.

I'm glad that you were there to intervene for this student. As helpless as you may have felt when she went back to him (and to more damage), you brought her to a vitally important first step. It's up to her to figure out how to keep her own self safe, and you've given her a good foundation for doing that.

At 3/10/07, 8:51 AM, Blogger graycie said...

Two telling phrases: her parents had not seen her when she left for school that morning and his parents immediately bailed him out.

At 3/10/07, 4:12 PM, Blogger Karla with a K said...

I can only hope that my daughter has the good fortune to have teachers half as kind, observant, and caring as you are.

At 3/14/07, 5:00 PM, Blogger Joanne Jacobs said...

My daughter wrote an article for her high school newspaper on dating violence, after persuading a good friend to be interviewed about her experiences. I think it may have helped other girls recognize the warning signs.

Abused Friend #1 broke up with her boyfriend, got back with him and finally dumped him for good.

High School Friend #2 broke up after the first incident, under heavy pressure from my daughter who was threatening to call the police on him.

In college, my daughter tried to warn her roommate about her jealous, controlling, emotionally abusive boyfriend, but Friend #3 put up with Jerko for years before finally realizing she could live without him.

I think some girls and women buy into the idea that jealousy and possessiveness are signs of love. In some respects, they remind me of anorexics: They have a distorted view of reality that's hard for others to shake.


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