92: Middle School All Over Again

92: Middle School All Over Again

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Middle School

Middle School All Over Again

Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.

~William James

When I started teaching seventh grade social studies, I didn’t know that I’d be transported back to my own thirteenth year. It happened after my student, Mary, came to school with cuts and bruises on her body. I’d kept a close eye on her ever since seeing her around town. Barefoot and without a curfew, she’d ride her skateboard or bike and hang out at the 7-Eleven.

Because of Mary’s apparent lack of parental supervision, I made a special effort to connect with her, which was easy because of her sunny and winning personality. When she came to school looking like she’d been in a fight, it seemed only natural that I’d ask her what happened. She shared that her brother’s friends were beating her up when they were high on drugs. I tried to comfort her even though I felt sick inside, not only because of the abuse she endured, but because at that age my stepfather had also left marks on my body.

In my junior high years, when I had to change for P.E., I dressed with my back to the wall to hide my welt marks. Randomly, he would beat me for wearing nail polish, forgetting my homework, or some other perceived infraction. If he had been drinking, he became a lunatic. Now as a wife and mother of three teenagers, I hadn’t thought about my stepfather in years. But seeing Mary’s bruises ripped off a scab from a wound that I didn’t even know was there.

After Mary told me her story, I called the principal. He told me I had to write a Child Protective Services (CPS) report, which I did, but I asked that my name be kept out of it. Although the situation wasn’t about me, I felt anxious about sharing the information Mary had told me.

During all the years of my abuse, the unspoken rule in my house remained: keep your mouth shut. My mom was also abusive when she was drunk or high. As much as it disgusted me, I would do anything to prove my love to my mother. I craved her approval and thought that if I acted perfectly, our house would be like The Brady Bunch. But it never worked. Her words and actions made me crazy, but I craved the carefree life of a normal kid, so I kept my mouth shut. Confused, I burned with rage, but I also knew that no one would ever take my word against hers. I was stuck—she was too good at making everyone else look wrong. And I knew if I called out for help and no one rescued me, that would be worse than never asking for help at all.

A couple of weeks passed, and I thought that Mary’s family would think that a neighbor called CPS. Surely someone else noticed her condition. On one Friday, however, Mary stormed into my class when I was teaching seventh period and said, “I have to talk to you, NOW!” I was bewildered but I saw the urgency in her eyes and stepped outside the door while my class worked on their journals. “You told! How could you tell? It had to be you because I didn’t tell anyone else. How could you do this to me? Now my brother will be taken from me forever. I love him. He needs me. I take care of him. I trusted you and this is how you repay me.” As she accused me, I could hear my mom’s voice in her words.

My head started swirling and I thought I’d throw up. I tried to answer Mary as an adult, but I felt like the thirteen-year-old who had spilled my family’s dark secret. I tried to find the words to comfort Mary, but she didn’t give me time to answer. “The marks are from my skateboard.” She said and then bolted out the door leaving me to face my students. Feeling paralyzed, I bit the inside of my cheeks to keep from crying. Somehow I made it through seventh period and sprinted for my car, sobbing all the way home.

When I arrived, my husband met me with the phone. “An irate parent wants you to call; here’s the number.” I returned Mary’s parents’ call explaining over and over, “If I think a student is in physical trouble, I am required by law to call CPS.”

They were unaffected by my argument. “She is always getting hurt. She says that you initiated the conversation and for some reason made these stories up. Do you know what you’ve done to our family?” they accused.

Finally, the dad grew weary of my repeated explanations and said, “Just don’t talk to the principal about us anymore. Let us manage our own family.” As I hung up the phone, the tears started and wouldn’t stop.

When I arrived at school the next day, I saw Mary. She wouldn’t make eye contact with me. As a professional, I treated her just like my other students, but my heart twisted every time I thought about it. I felt insecure and inadequate—raw on the inside. After Mary’s class left, on my desk was a note—unsigned. But I knew it was from Mary:

Mrs. Ryan, you need to learn to be a teacher and not a parent. What we need is for you to do your job as a teacher and leave the parenting to the parents.

It sounds odd, but I was glad that she wrote the note—it had to make her feel better. Before the incident, we’d connected in a special way, but I knew our relationship would never be the same. In the next couple of weeks, she came to school with a broken arm, broken fingers, and a black eye. I didn’t say a word. It was almost as if she wanted to prove that the injuries were from her skateboard. Abruptly they stopped, and I never saw another mark on her body. I still saw her around town looking homeless, and I acted friendly. But I never made it personal, and we never spoke of the incident again.

When I think of Mary, my hope is that my actions allowed her life to improve. I know mine did. They forced me to face the ghosts of my childhood. And by trying to help Mary, I helped myself. I tackled one of my fears and alerted authorities to what I thought was a dangerous situation.

The fact that I was blamed only made me dig deeper into my own painful past. Thankfully, I wasn’t a middle school student; I was a middle school teacher. I didn’t have to be afraid of the truth. The truth sets you free, and the truth is, what happened to me was wrong, but I wasn’t wrong to try and help Mary. Maybe one day, she’ll understand. Maybe one day, she’ll even use the experience to help another abuse victim. Mary is one seventh grade social studies student I’ll never forget. I just hope she remembers I cared.

~Suzy Ryan

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