I was seven when my parents transferred me to a private, mixed age level school. Before that, I went to a neighborhood school. The first time I remember actually feeling empathy mixed with fear was in kindergarten, when our fat, bully of a principal, wearing his too-tight, grey polyester suit and black horn rimmed glasses, strode into our classroom, scowling, and picked up a boy named Eddie by the armpit. The principal started to scream and curse at this skinny five year old boy and then in front of my entire class, beat the shit out of that kid. I made eye contact with Eddie and could see a single tear escape the corner of his eye. He remained completely silent otherwise. I was wearing a Winnie-the-Pooh dress with a red bow tie and (my mother didn’t notice) I never wore it again.
That story still stirs up hate in my heart. It sat with me the rest of my time at that school and I still think of it sometimes, when I am painting. Sometimes my need to paint comes from that place of injustice. Still, I have never directly painted about Eddie. Awhile back, I Googled the principal’s name and learned that he had passed away quite some time ago and when I read that I felt like spitting on something.
I never, coming home from school, told my parents about the incident. I never talked about how scary a lot of things that happened to me in that classroom were … how a boy named Erik tied me up at recess and stole my shoes, how I was the only kid who knew how to read already and my teachers would make me read aloud in front of everyone else, who in turn, teased me relentlessly, how a girl named Meg continually stuck out her bratty tongue at me and spread hateful rumors.
Years later, even at the private school, I never told them about how a boy named Damian made fun of my lunch box and how all the kids teased me because my mom made my clothes instead of buying them. I would get on the bus and kids would say, “Oh that’s such a nice dress,” and when I would thank them they would role their eyes and say, “I guess your mother made that. She must not know how to shop.” I also never told them about the horrible abuse my brother suffered on that same bus, not just from kids, but from the bus driver too. I can still hear that bus driver threaten my brother and it feels like drums at a parade.
None of those things really lingered with me for too long … only Eddie’s story did and so this past Saturday when I read the Adrian Peterson story and then foolishly chose to look at the photos of his torturous act, I became deeply depressed and angry. It doesn’t help that I also have a four year old son, so that imagining the abuse is that much clearer for me. I have been incredibly sad about the fact that people are debating this issue as if there is an issue up for debate and also troubled that it has also become somewhat of a talking point that revolves around southerners and race.
Every single person I know personally, that has been abused, is white, and they are from right here, not the south. Since I have been ranting about the NFL on Facebook, I have had countless conversations with friends, co-workers, and even childhood friends, many of them sharing their own stories of abuse. One guy told me that he used to have to go into a closet with his teacher and pull his pants down, lie across her lap, and she would beat him with a heavy gold ruler. Another friend told me about how her siblings would have to choose, each morning, if they wanted to be hit with a belt or a hairbrush. When I asked her what she chose, she said, “the belt.” I just worry that if everyone out there thinks that “whipping kids” is primarily a southern, christian, or black thing, then the kids who aren’t those things, will be even more scared to speak out.
If I didn’t tell my parents about something that happened to a boy I hardly knew, I can imagine that there are countless adults out there who have never, ever been brave enough to face their past, their accusers, or to even tell their best friend or their children, about what they went through. Though I vehemently oppose any kind of corporal punishment (I almost had a lady at Target locked up for swatting her three year old) I am, at this point, not even addressing discipline. I am addressing mental and physical abuse, which oftentimes does not end for children once they are adults. I have a friend whose mother still hits her, and she is forty.
I don’t know how to fix this for anyone. It bothers me that I can’t fix it.
I think it is because of Eddie that I have always had a distaste for rules and authority. It is because of Eddie that when I took religion classes at a Catholic high school, I argued relentlessly with my teachers about their lessons. It is because of Eddie that I have extreme impatience with any type of violent behavior. Eddie has probably changed the way I parent. A five year old boy, the color of caramels, with big brown eyes, and a striped velour shirt, changed me forever.
Once, in high school, I went with my teacher to a Zen temple to mediate and the zen master straightened my spine, gently, with a ruler, and I never went back. I have never, ever liked being told what to do. As a teacher now, I avoid as many should’s as possible and have to go into most meetings with the silent mantra “don’t say anything, don’t say anything.” This hardly works. I can’t help myself.
Eddie is likely still alive and I am positive he doesn’t know I exist … that all these years I have kept his shame in my heart. My hope is that Adrian Peterson’s story will change the way some people parent. Maybe the best case scenario is that he changes his ways and then leads by his miraculous example. Maybe he can, in fact, “fix it.” I am doubtful that is going to happen because just a few months ago I stood behind a woman in a coffee shop who talked to her two year old like he was a beastly enemy and took his cookie away for because she didn’t like that he was walking in a circle.
Sometimes, I think about just packing up the kids and moving to some remote location in Alaska. We would have sled dogs and an igloo and I’d make enough money to get by … we’d leave everything behind and just be surrounded by sky and rabbits and the occasional friendly guest. Sometimes, the human race is just too much for me.
I will tell you a secret. Each year our school makes t-shirts and the faculty members are supposed to wear them on the first day. I never wear mine. This is for a variety of reasons (the font is always bad, I don’t look good in red, boobs and a crew neck equal vomit), but the biggest reason is so that I stand out to the kids who notice that I don’t play by the rules either. Each year, after the opening day assembly, at least one kid comes into my room and starts to cry about the stress of the assembly, the noise, the pressure. They find me.
Maybe I can’t fix it all. Maybe I can’t fix the Adrian Peterson mentality or the asshole on Twitter who thinks all kids deserve “the ROD.” I feel like I can, however, be a safe place for some kids to land and that I can continue, each day, to make every kid I work with, feel valuable. Maybe that is enough. Especially if the alternative is Alaska. My parents would miss me and I don’t know how to knit.
It’s okay to love people, you know? Really love them. It takes the sting out.