A phone call

Look for this tomorrow. I’m suddenly bushed.

(How predictable of me. I promised to finish a post the next day and let two days go by. I needed yesterday first to visit Mom and sing to her, then, when I emerged into an unexpected Park Point sun, to cast my cares away by walking the Point collecting agates. I returned home shortly ahead of Claudia who had taken a dear friend on a birthday plant buying expedition. By that time all I wanted to do was sit down amidst new flowers and talk about those damn cares….then I got a call from the State Auditor’s office. More about that in a later post.)

The phone call came on Thursday. My caller left a message requesting a call back about righting an old wrong. It was vague but somehow urgent, not that the forty or fifty recent emails sent to my School Board email address do not share the same urgency. Sadly, I’ll need to put in a long day soon to reply to them.

It led to a surprisingly poignant conversation. By coincidence, the morning after I started this post NPR’s Morning edition had a StoryCorps interview that covered similar territory about how we treat children. I highly recommend a quick listen before proceeding with the rest of my post.

So, I returned the call.

How can I report a instance of abuse by a teacher that took place some time ago? my caller inquired. “Who do I report it to?” a mature male voice asked. He explained that a story on the news from a few weeks back about a teacher’s cruel behavior had triggered a memory that he felt he needed to pursue.

I explained that the procedure would be to speak first to the teacher’s immediate supervisor which in most cases meant the school principal. After some hemming and hawing it appeared this was not a satisfactory answer. How long ago was this? I asked. A few years ago it seemed. “Well,”I explained, “it may not be something that any disciplinary action can be applied to after years had gone by.”

Its about a child who never really got over it, I was told.

“Just how long ago what this?”

With a little prompting it turned out that the “child” was the caller himself when he was just in second grade. The fellow, a sensitive kid, was five years behind me in school and not quite sixty. The news story had recalled an repressed humiliation that had planted itself deeply into a sensitive kid who never talked about it with anyone until it scabbed over. When dredged up it became a story about some other fictional child, to avoid a new humiliation. As we talked on the fellow surrendered to a little telephone counseling and a sympathetic ear.

The cruelty is one every teacher has faced. A child asks to be excused from the class to go to the bathroom. Some children use this request as a dodge to escape the class and teachers who automatically trust such requests are sometimes misled. In this instance the teacher told my caller to sit down and shortly afterward he “peed his pants” in front of the whole class.

At this point my hardened readers will be tempted to gawfaw. Second grade! Fifty years ago! Peeing in ones pants! Honestly!

It wasn’t the only instance of cruelty, there were others. I explained that it was an earlier era and that while there will always be cruel teachers, professionals today weren’t typically the martinets teachers of old could be.

I offered a personal story to demonstrate that I could sympathize with his humiliation. I explained that as kid I had a recurring nightmare about diving into a public swimming pool and losing my swim trunks and having to escape the pool under the gaze of hundreds of people stark naked. This is absolutely the truth. I added that in my elementary school mind I had convinced myself that should this ever happen I had no other option but to kill myself to evade the stigma and ridicule of such a humiliation. This too is true. Today when I repeat this story about myself I tell it as a humorous story, a joke. But when I was ten or twelve I was in dead earnest.

We talked more about the circumstances of Mrs. Cruel’s actions, how it was likely that she was long dead but our conversation and my sympathy had a remarkably therapeutic affect on my grateful caller as he lingered over the indignity from his youth that had been so long repressed. He was certain that it had somehow knocked him off his trajectory in life by taking the starch out of his collar. He confided, as we were talking, that he was in tears. He told me he was astounded that a school board member would take the time to hear him out.

I replied that I would tell his story to others, as I’m doing here, as a way of reminding people, particularly teachers, of the profound impact their every word can have on children. My caller thanked me for this promise.

It was an exceptional call, the first like it I’d taken since I ran for the legislature in 1976 when another fellow had called to complain about his treatment as a youth. But that was a complaint about the legal system. Life is full of injury and injured people. I’ve been lucky.

I’m sure I told the gentleman one of my favorite stories about Abraham Lincoln, probably when we were talking about the additional abuse kids heaped on him for his accident. I told him how in backwoods of 1820 Indiana kids would would torment turtles by placing burning sticks and grass on their shells. Lincoln was known for rescuing turtles when his friends tormented them so. There’s a model of humanity.

Again, if you have not already done it. Check the link to the StoryCorps anecdote.