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Facing Pandora

March 13, 2018

I have discussed a troubled student of mine in posts here and here.  As you can imagine, it has been a difficult year for her.  She’s new to the school, a bit awkward and carrying a heavy burden.  She has made some friends, which is good, but she has cycled through others.  I suspect many 9th and 10th graders find her baggage to be a bit much to bear.

It certainly doesn’t help that both her parents have told her on more than one occasion that either a) the assault didn’t happen or b) it was her fault.  Unfortunately, when the people you trust with your life tell you something like that, you tend to believe it.  It certainly doesn’t help when both pieces of information contradict and also serve to make one feel like crap.  The short version is she doesn’t get a lot support from home.

In spite of those challenges, she’s made progress.  She seems to have found a group of “misfits”  who are supportive and accepting; she started playing soccer again for a local league, and has spoken of joining the high school team next year. She seems to be getting closer to her sister.  Overall, her grades are up, and I introduced her to something called the Youth Forum.  The Forum is a monthly meeting of students from all over the state who talk about issues important to them.  It’s an open and affirming environment, and I thought it would give my student a safe place to connect with others.  It worked–she enjoys the Forum, has made a couple of new friends, and even reconnected with an old middle school friend who coincidentally joined the Forum from her high school.

I knew she was starting to heal when she came to me and informed me of her plan to open the “box.”  The box contained all of her belongings from the sexual assault returned to her by the police detectives.  She had been keeping it in the back of her closet for a while–she couldn’t bring herself to open it for months. She had decided that it was time to open it, and that she wanted me to be in the room when she did so.

I told her that she didn’t have to open it right away–she could bring it in, and she could store it in my classroom. When she felt ready, it would be there.  She said she felt ready, and wanted to do it sooner rather than later.  I took this as a good sign. I know that part of the reason people blame themselves for things like assaults is that it’s a method of establishing control: if it’s your fault, then you are asserting control over the situation. Admitting it wasn’t your fault means a complete surrender of control.  That’s terrifying for most of us.  Opening the box was a way for her to reclaim some control over the situation.

I informed the support staff what was happening, and asked them if they had any advice for me.  I cc’d my message to the principal.  I received zero response.  I wondered if I would be called to another meeting, but that didn’t happen, either.  I guess everyone was done with me.  So, my student and I agreed on a day and time we would open the box.

She sat down at one of my classroom tables and stared at it. I told her to take her time, only open it when she was ready.  I called Lollie, my service dog, over to lay down underneath the table so she’d be nearby.  I said to my student that opening the box was likely to trigger flashbacks, and she should be prepared for that.  She nodded in silence, and then carefully removed the lid–as carefully as if she were working in bomb disposal.  I suppose in a way, she was.

Most of the contents seemed benign at first glance.  Some clothing items, a few bits and pieces from her pockets.  She discovered a ring her recently deceased grandmother had given her–she was wearing it at the time of the attack.  She decided she wanted to keep it, but hated the fact she now associated it with that day.  I encouraged her to keep it someplace safe and out-of-the-way–maybe one day she could look at it again, and just think of her grandmother.  She agreed and put the ring aside.

And then she pulled out the shirt she was wearing at the time.  I couldn’t honestly tell you what the shirt looked like–the only thing I was focused on was the blood stains.  The worst, though, was yet to come: an envelope with the photos of her injuries taken by the police.  The deep, black bruises on her neck, shoulders, arms, and chest.  The x-ray of her broken ankle.  I knew she had been hurt in ways that I couldn’t possibly understand.  Seeing the evidence there in black and white was too much to bear.  How could another human being do that to a child?  Most victims of sexual assault are attacked by someone they know.  My student was attacked by a stranger.  That means she will likely never have the satisfaction of confronting him or seeing him pay for what he did.  It also means she’s going to have to find the strength to heal without that closure or catharsis. I can’t imagine carrying that burden at any time of life, much less at thirteen.

After a moment, she asked in a voice no louder than a whisper: “The bruises mean I fought back.  Isn’t that right?  I fought back.  That means it wasn’t my fault.  Right?”

I took a deep breath.  With as much confidence as I could muster, I said “Yes. Yes.  You’re right.  That’s exactly what that means.”


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