On June 1, ArkansasIDEAS releases “Be the Reason: The Educator’s Role in Combating Child Maltreatment,” an online course for Arkansas educators. My younger teacher-self winces. I wish I’d had training like this decades ago.
Maybe then I would have known how to stop what was happening to my student, Cindy.*
It was 1983. Fresh from college, I bubbled with ideas when I landed my dream job in a New Jersey special education school. I became the “life skills teacher” for a group of teenagers whose IEPs prescribed “pre-vocational” skills. I needed to teach such things as how to pack a lunch, take a bus, dress for work, and follow your boss’s directions.
Ms. B., our paraprofessional, and I quickly bonded with this quirky class-family of ten kids. Decades later, their faces and voices still pierce my heart. I will never forget Jared, whose savant-syndrome gifts enabled him to correctly spout the day of the week of any given date in history. I can still hear Molly, challenged by epileptic seizures, who would gauge our sensory environment by blurting out a flat-toned “Too bright!” or “Too loud!” How could I forget Lori? Because she lacked nerve sensitivity in her face, she had been taught to use a mirror to check if she needed a tissue for her runny nose.
Cindy was our “get it done” model worker. Whatever task I handed her—washing dishes, folding laundry, sorting facsimile coins and bills—Cindy’s brown eyes would light up. She’d nod, smile, and then get busy. According to her thick background file, Cindy’s trouble with expressive language posed her biggest challenge. She understood way more than she could talk about. What I understood later: Cindy mastered the art of agreeability as a coping strategy, a way to avoid attention.
That year I struggled to keep up with the teaching demands, swamped in skills analysis and lesson planning, trying hard to be a decent teacher.
I did not know what I didn’t know. I had some life skills of my own to learn.
Despite college, teaching internships, and additional trainings, I did not have child maltreatment on my radar. I studied my students’ medical and cognitive vulnerabilities, but I neglected to hone in on their high risk for abuse and neglect.
I missed the signals when, day after day, Cindy’s face clouded with a pout that didn’t pass. Instead of joining in class chatter, she’d bury her head in an issue of Seventeen. Let her have her mood swings, I rationalized. Wasn’t I being a good teacher by allowing her to be a typical sixteen-year-old?
I missed a glaring indicator when Cindy refused to take off her baggy sweatshirt. She’d never take it off. Fall turned to winter, and Cindy always wore her quilted black jacket, even in indoor gym class.
“I’m cold,” she’d say as she hugged herself with puffy-coated arms.
“Handicapped kids do this. Her coat is like her security blanket,” I explained to Ms. B. when she tried unsuccessfully to get Cindy to remove her coat one day when the heating system cranked up. “Let’s pick our battles,” I advised.
I ignored another sign the day Cindy taunted Jared, stringing together insults I’d never heard her use before, escalating her gibes until Jared slumped, his hands over his head. Cindy exploded in a giggling fit. Taking her aside, I worked to keep a soft voice as I lectured her on kindness, finally forcing a nod from her. I don’t know why I mentally dismissed her behavior change. I wrongly chalked it up to her disabilities.
What I remember with relentless clarity: On a sunny afternoon in May, we’d come inside from weeding our class garden, all of us thirsty and complaining.
“I’m too hot,” Cindy said. She stood; her face flushed. She shook her head and looked at me with sad, glassy eyes, as if to say, “I give up,” and took off her coat. Her too-small tee shirt bulged.
My insides went cold. She was pregnant, unmistakably so. Probably in her third trimester. I didn’t even lock eyes with Ms. B—just asked her to take over class as I made a beeline for the school director’s office.
I must have called the child protection hotline, according to the law, but I honestly cannot remember doing so. After I told the director, and she closed her gaping jaw, she assured me the administrators would take care of this emergency—that I should not talk about it. I need not communicate with the parents. In the next few weeks, a string of people in suits with briefcases showed up in our classroom. Just to observe, they said. One day, just before the school year ended, Cindy was gone. I never saw her again, but her memory lives in a hollow place within me. Recently, her image has been speaking to me.
If I had been better armed with knowledge about sexual abuse, I might have responded differently—both before and after Cindy took off her coat.
As producer Claret Alcala Collins and I developed the course, “Be the Reason,” we searched for stories that needed to be told. Some of these stories, because of the wise and careful intervention of teachers and others, end in ways that will fill you with hope. In this course participants learn crucial tips and guidelines from top authorities from Arkansas’s dedicated child protection agencies. Our key expert is Sherry Williamson, Child Abuse Project Coordinator for the Arkansas Commission on Child Abuse, Rape and Domestic Violence. Williamson shares poignant real-life stories gleaned from decades of work in this field. She shows us how adults working in schools can help children survive neglect and abuse, and, ultimately, heal and thrive. What greater life skills lesson is there?
*The names in this nonfiction narrative have been changed.