One winter a student posted a status update on social media that went something like, “I hate that fat girl in the yoga pants.”
For two weeks, streams of girls came to me upset to be the target of harassment. Most of the girls didn’t know the ‘bully’ personally but were certain it related to their yoga pants. When I interviewed the one who wrote the comment, she revealed the target. It was a slam against her former best friend to hurt her, nothing to do with the many girls who cried themselves to sleep for weeks after it was posted. It broke my heart. 15 different girls had told me 15 different stories about self image and belonging.
I think of those yoga pants sometimes and I wonder about what else is going through the individual minds of young girls while they are alone on social media.
I also wonder how girls are affected by the #MeToo hashtag that’s going around. And then I think about the many girls in schools who have shared their stories with me over the years. I wonder what they are doing now. I wonder if they’ve found a way to heal, to take charge of a new narrative that builds them up rather than lingering in one that makes them feel torn down. I wonder about the subtext of #MeToo, the underlying emotional pulls, the accompanying memories, the what’s next…. As an adult, the subtext of #MeToo can be empowering, a symbol of solidarity and strength, or it could be an invitation to seek help. Does a teenage girl interpret it in these ways too? How does it affect her sense of belonging and self image?
And so over the past month I’ve thought a lot about many of the girls in the schools I’ve worked in over the years. I’ve remembered that the pain and scope can stretch far and wide. This isn’t a story about one girl, but about many girls over many years. It was important to me to write this post to show their courage and resilience, to use writing to reflect on the complexity of the situation for girls today. I want to remember how necessary it is to listen to their individual stories and how something essential could be missed if we don’t.
Warning: The content is sensitive and may be upsetting.
It’s a Tuesday morning. Ms. L shows up at my office door. She has that look, the look that tells me something big has happened, the look that says, Take a deep breath, Jessica.
“Kate came to see me this morning. She shared something. She wants to tell you too,” she says.
Then Ms. L lets it out fast, as if the speed will lessen the impact, make it all seem more manageable.
Kate comes into my office. She casts her eyes to the floor. The energy surrounding her looks contained like she’s struggling to hold it in, like a held breath in a bad-smelling room.
“What happened?” I ask.
Kate sighs—and then her story comes tumbling out with a burst of air. She talks about how she had a fight with her boyfriend. A bad fight. They threw things at each other. The apartment they shared in town was no longer safe. Things had been getting worse. Sean hit her. She yelled. And then “it” happened. She was raped. When she could escape, she ran to a friend’s house, stayed the night, decided to tell the us about it now, weeks later. “I haven’t been sleeping,” she said. “I’m still living at Sean’s. I think I should move. Maybe. It hasn’t happened again, so maybe it’s okay. He was so sorry.”
In this moment, Kate is so open, so trusting, so desperate for peace that her truth is raw. Kate and Ms. L and I cry together.
We call her mother. We ask her to come to the school immediately. Kate hadn’t seen her mother in a week.
Kate asks us to stay in the room with her when her mother arrives. When Kate tells her mother about the event, her mother falls to her knees and sobs. Kate stands and holds her mother’s head against her leg, soothing her. Then Kate’s mother reveals she had been in an abusive relationship too. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” she says. Kate had grown up witnessing her mother’s struggles with love and domestic violence.
The women stand holding each other, crying. Then we all hug and cry together before Kate and her mother go to the police station.
Six months pass. Kate is living at home again. Sean misses her and regularly tries to win her back.
The police come to the school. Kate is in the hospital. Kate is 18 now. She asked the police to call the school instead of her mom. Kate had tried to take her own life.
A couple weeks later, Kate returns to school and we develop a plan with the help of a social worker. Kate identifies three caring adults at the school who she feels safe going to when she feels distressed. Kate says she wants to heal, to feel like herself, to reconnect to life. Somehow she remembers hope, she says. A tiny crack in her dark world lets in the light, expanding each time she trusts us with a story, an insight, a goal, a worry. The social worker and the teacher work with Kate to help her find safe housing, to help her rebuild her life again. Kate works so hard.
Kate has now graduated from high school and a college program. She works full time. She is engaged. She is excited to have a daughter of her own one day. She says that she didn’t start to feel safe until the police issued a restraining order preventing Sean from contacting her. Kate is still working things out with her mom, but every year it gets easier.
And I could share “Sean’s” story too. Sean is also one of my students. He has been in foster care since he was three. He has lived in 11 different homes. When he turned 16, his worker decided it would be easier for Sean to live in his own apartment than with a family. Sean struggles in school sometimes and has not made any connections with the staff. He started skipping classes in Grade 9 because he didn’t want his peers to know he couldn’t read. He steals things sometimes even though he has enough money for rent and groceries. It’s tough because there is no one to call when Sean is struggling. His worker’s office is 3 hours away. Who is raising Sean? Who is teaching him how to love?
Sean loves Kate. She is the only person he has ever felt love for in his whole life. He plans to marry Kate. It scares him when they fight. He is afraid of losing her.
Sean has an explosive temper at school sometimes. He bruised his fist punching the door when he was mad. When I talk to Sean about his temper he pulls his hoodie up around so it covers most of his face and says, “I don’t eff-ing care.”
Kate didn’t charge Sean at first. She told the police her story but decided not to press charges. She said she didn’t want all the drama. Sean dropped out of school when he turned 18 a few weeks later. He had 16/30 credits. Kate said, “he won’t be at school so I’ll be fine.”
When Kate was in the hospital, he tried to visit her. She found the strength to advocate for herself. Soon there was a restraining order in place.
As Kate put her own life back together, Sean’s life continued to fall apart. He lost everything. He got in some big trouble with the law and within 6 months was arrested and imprisoned. He still has no family.
Before I started listening closely to students I would have found this story too extreme, but every year I meet students with stories as complex as Sean’s and Kate’s. I hope all the “Kates” out there are reaching out to people they trust. I hope all the “Seans” out there have people who they can call family who will teach them how to love. Everyone has a right to feel safe.
And these are just two stories. Each time I see someone post the #MeToo to signal that they have been a victim of sexual harassment or sexual violence, I know there is an individual, complex story. The first step is sharing. Awareness. Then we need to plan…
In a school, our number one priority is that students feel safe. How can we do this better? How can we make our communities safer? Our world safer? How can we prevent harassment and violence? What do we need to teach our children and teens? How will school, home, and community work together for change?
“It takes a village…”
Thank-you to all the educators out there who provide a safe haven. Each school I’ve worked at over the years has had a team of caring adults who quietly help many “Kates” and “Seans” each week.
I wish I had more answers. For now I continue to work on listening…
* Confidentiality is important to me. Therefore, this is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.