For some reason, this week has been full of memories for me. Many have been wonderful, and even funny to the point of bordering on hysteria. But my thoughts turned to some memories of Alice, who was the wife of my mother's cousin Bill, my legal guardian. I have written in the past about some of the things I endured while under Alice's care. From time to time, I feel compelled to share some of the things that happened at this time in my life. I do this for a few different reasons, but one in particular. The things we live through as children, during those critical formative years, can change and affect us forever. I simply want to open people's eyes, minds, and hearts. Someone who reads these words may never have raised a voice or a hand in anger toward a child. They may, however, be inspired to do something to help a child or a family that suffers from the effects of mental and physical abuse. I can only hope.
I couldn't figure out why it was happening. All that I knew was that whenever it was time for parent-teacher conferences, my life would become even more hellish. I was a straight-A student. I never talked back to my teachers, or showed up to school late. I didn't argue with other students or get in any trouble on the playground at recess. I played well with others, and never ran with scissors. I didn't fidget, or act up, or act out. I did what I was supposed to do, and did so respectfully. My short life had taught me that this was the safest and smartest way to behave. Don't get any adults angry, and you won't get in any trouble. Simple rules to try and maintain a safe existence.
Then we would have a couple of half-days at school because it was time for conferences. Conferences were the teacher's opportunity to let parents know how their kids were doing in school. It was the time for parents to find out if little Susie was struggling with a certain subject, or if she was behaving a lot differently at school than her parents thought she was. It gave both the parents and the teachers a chance to know whether everything was going smoothly, or if they needed to find a way to help the children be able to flourish in school.
In spite of my great grades and quiet behavior, every time Alice came home from conferences, her fury was unleashed. I was screamed and cursed at, and beaten for everything that was wrong about me. This happened after every single conference. No matter what I did, every time it ended up the same way. I had no idea why there was so much wrong with me, or what to do to make my teachers not want to say bad things about me. It was especially painful for me because I absolutely adored my teachers. Yet the beatings continued. I was reviled for being stupid and bad and crazy like my father.
A couple of months into my fourth grade school year, one evening during dinner, Alice angrily told me to leave the table and go to my room until I was called to come back. She took her husband and two daughters into her bedroom for a family meeting. There was a vote, and the family decided that they didn't want me to live with them any more. Alice would be sending me to live with her mother, my Gram. It hurt to know that they had all voted to get rid of me. (Years later, one of them told me that she voted for me to leave because she couldn't bear to see me beaten constantly. She went along with Alice's plan to get rid of me, knowing that I wouldn't be abused all of the time, and envying me a bit for escaping. Hearing her say that so many years later was a moment when I felt an incredible gratitude for her caring about me, and sadness for her situation.) So I went to live with Gram, my heart full of hope. At least until Alice saw that hope in my face and told me that Gram had hated me from the first moment she had laid eyes on me.
When my first parent-teacher conference rolled around, I was full of fear and stress. I didn't want Gram to get mad at me because of the conference and send me back to live with Alice. I am surprised that I could even sleep or eat, considering everything that was at stake. Even if I didn't get sent back to live with Alice, there was the very real possibility of her coming over just to beat the stuffing out of me. Finally, the time came for Gram to go to the conference. I was at home wondering what would happen. Conferences were always a bad thing. When Gram came home, though, she didn't look mad at all. I waited for the yelling to begin, but it never did. Gram told me that my teacher, Mrs. Waite (who lived on the same block as Alice, incidentally) was very pleased with me. I was a good student and a very good girl, and Gram was happy to hear how well I was doing in school. I was stunned. I remember going to school the next day and thanking Mrs. Waite for my good conference. She seemed a bit surprised, and told me that I was very welcome, but that I really deserved it.
Every time conferences rolled around with Gram, she was happy with my progress when she came home. In fact, when I got to fifth grade, Miss Blagg sent home a note telling Gram that I was one of three students that were doing so well in school that she didn't have to come in for a conference that quarter. This was a trend that went on through the coming years. I remember begging her in my Senior year to have a conference with my favorite teacher, just so that I could hear some feedback.
Some years later, I figured out why my conferences with Alice had resulted in terror, while my conferences with Gram were such positive experiences. It was all about the expectations that they set with my teachers. I am sure now that Alice told my teachers that craziness ran in my family, and that I had mental problems. Whenever I behaved in a slightly odd way (and what kid doesn't have odd moments now and then?) the teachers noticed it (and noted it) and reinforced her negative opinions about me. I was wrong and bad and crazy, and I needed to have it beaten out of me. Before you think I am over-reaching on this, let me put this out there for you. Just before you meet someone, you are told by a friend you have no reason to mistrust that Mr. Smythe is bipolar. As the evening progresses, you notice that he really laughs a lot, and very uproariously. Then he becomes very serious. Mood swings, you might think. He must not be on any medication. But if the same person simply told you that Mr. Smythe was a fascinating man with a marvelous sense of humor, you'd probably just think he really likes your jokes.
Gram never created that sort of atmosphere. She simply stated that she was my grandmother and that I was living with her. She provided the basic and necessary information like my name, address, and birth date, and that was about it. She may or may not have addressed why I lived with her. But my teachers were no longer looking for aberrant behavior, so they didn't find any. Not only had I moved away from abuse, I had moved away from being labeled. Gram had unknowingly given me the gift of allowing me to become just another kid. The damage Alice had caused to me wasn't undone, but at least the horror didn't continue. Instead of Katrina who had to be watched because she was a little bit crazy, I was just Katrina, a skinny little girl with long legs and short hair who did well in school and sometimes skinned her knees at recess. I no longer had to be punished for who I might be. I was given the chance to become who I could be.
Always remember that what is said and done to children matters. Whether positive or negative, children's experience have an impact on their lives. No life is perfect. Everyone has the possibility of experiencing things like loss, illness, pain, and failure, as well as joy, excitement, and success. But no child should have to live in constant fear.